The eye contact, the exhilarating anxiety of sharing private tastes, the power of knowing what you want and summoning up the courage to ask for it: in case you can’t tell, I’m talking about the once-upon-a-time experience of renting a movie at the video store, that cherished place that has long been on the verge of extinction. Having been on both sides of the counter, I can confirm that it’s a space of intimacy for both clerk and customer. A healthy dose of trust is required to fulfill the transaction. When I worked at a New York video store in the late nineties, I remember being dazzled by the confidence of those who would ask for films with explicit gay themes or brazenly titillating covers. Today we watch movies at home thanks to the relative safety and anonymity supplied by streaming services, removing the interpersonal element from selection—the thrill of inviting a stranger to see a potentially secret part of you.
The tactile, face-to-face flirtation of the video store is one of the many ways that Cheryl Dunye’s brilliantly layered 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, now rightly considered a cornerstone of the New Queer Cinema, gets at the erotic exchange of looks essential to the cinematic experience. The writer-director herself stars as Cheryl, an aspiring filmmaker from Philadelphia moonlighting as a video-store clerk. As the movie begins, Cheryl confesses, direct-to-camera, that although she wants to make movies she doesn’t know what she wants to make them about—she only knows that her first film has to be about black women, “because our stories have never been told.” She finds her subject soon enough as she obsessively digs into the history of an obscure black film actress of the thirties, simply and oddly named “The Watermelon Woman.” Paralleling her excavation of this figure’s largely unknown past, Cheryl becomes part of her own surprise romantic comedy, finding herself aggressively courted by a coquettish white customer, Diana (Guinevere Turner). Naturally, the women first meet cute when Diana’s trying to decide between movies: in this case Cleopatra Jones, Jason’s Lyric, and Personal Best—all signifiers of specific tastes.
The act of recommending a movie to another person is a form of curation, which is a reminder that movies are individualized totems before they become shared objects of desire. The Watermelon Woman intricately and entertainingly maps out all the ways that movies can speak to one’s personal history as well as one’s sociopolitical identity. Dunye also never lets us forget that sexual attraction and eroticism are implicit in our relationship with the screen. Cheryl’s eye is first drawn to the mysterious figure of “The Watermelon Woman,” who first appears to her like a shining beacon out of nowhere in a corny, racist picture called Plantation Memories, because of her striking looks. While showing a crummy VHS transfer of this scratchy old black-and-white oddity—a fictional movie, invented by Dunye—she describes being drawn to “the most beautiful black mammy named Elsie.”
Dressed in apron and do-rag, Elsie embodies the stereotype found in countless movies of racist classical Hollywood, most prominently by Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. Yet here, as Dunye exclaims, “Girlfriend has it going on.” Thus she reverses the stereotype, a traditionally desexualized figure, while at the same time situating her own film in a specific, and in terms of American cinema, rarely explored perspective: that of a black woman admiring the image of another black woman. As she delves deeper into her research, she discovers even more of a kinship: in the world of Dunye’s film, “The Watermelon Woman,” named Fae Richards, was a movie star involved in a long-term relationship with her female director—a Dorothy Arzner type named Martha Page. Cheryl is delighted that Fae is “a Sapphic sister, a bulldagger, a lesbian.” Scholar Karin D. Wimbley writes of the film, “The historical import of this identification is multidimensional: Mammy is no longer relegated to stereotypes that would see her as asexual; to the contrary, the Mammy of Dunye’s making is young, beautiful, and sexually desirable.”
While Cheryl looks at Fae, we look at Cheryl, but we’re always also aware that Cheryl Dunye is the director of the film we’re watching, reminding us that directorial perspective is paramount. The film’s clever opening sequence—first-person camcorder footage of a stodgy wedding that Cheryl and her best friend, Tamara (Valarie Walker), are shooting for some extra cash—affirms just who is behind the camera: we constantly hear Cheryl’s voice from offscreen, giving instructions to Tamara, who’s running around with a lighting bounce board, or reprimanding a rude white wedding photographer for blocking her frame. That Cheryl is the star of her own on-screen romance only makes the hall of mirrors more complicated—and more pleasurable. Furthermore, Tamara accuses Diana of romantically pursuing Cheryl out of some latent sexual fixation on black women, adding another wrinkle to the film’s ever spiraling inquiries into objectification and fetishization. (Also of note is that just before this film, Guinevere Turner starred in Rose Troche’s groundbreaking 1994 indie lesbian comedy Go Fish, which is explicitly name-checked by Cheryl in the film, firmly placing this film—and the Diana character—in the ongoing history of lesbian cinema, even as it was being written.)
The Watermelon Woman is also noteworthy for the refreshing, frank intimacy of the encounters between Dunye and Turner. There’s a genuine eroticism to these positive, representationally complex images of passionate lesbian lovemaking, so rarely seen on-screen—and there’s also a marked lack of the kind of objectification seen in mainstream, often male-directed lesbian sex scenes. This probably made it even more troubling for Michigan Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra, who deemed the film pornographic upon its release, using it as a cudgel when he unsuccessfully motioned to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, from which Dunye received a production grant. (Trump made Hoekstra the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands in 2018.)
It should go without saying that The Watermelon Woman was not made for Hoekstra. He has an entire hundred-plus-year history of safely white, staunchly heterosexual American movies that he can watch, after all. Dunye’s project is both archival and desirous, a romantic corrective to decades upon decades of cinematic marginalization. As a work of rigorous queerness, it also responds to the notion of the heterosexual, objectifying “male gaze,” coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” There have, of course, been filmmakers who have challenged the patriarchal mode for decades, including queer filmmakers as varied as Jean Cocteau, Chantal Akerman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gus Van Sant, and Céline Sciamma (whose provocative debut Water Lilies is about as pinpoint-accurate a thesis on the power of the gaze as one could imagine), flipping the script by turning the gaze around.
The Watermelon Woman is so warm, deft, and funny that it can be easy to forget how innovative it is, not to mention how meticulously it functions as a complex, multifaceted queer text. When last year I taught a course called “Queerness in American Cinema” at The New School, I had scheduled Dunye’s film near the end of the semester, not quite realizing ahead of time just how perfectly it synthesized so many of the themes we had been exploring throughout the semester: the gulf between Hollywood actors’ personas and personal lives; the gossip network that created an alternate community for movie stars; the persistent and underdiscussed reality of female spectatorship; the importance of excavating lost or erased histories; the intersection of queer and race studies. Even the centrality of camp in queer culture is visible in Dunye’s parodic imaginings of Fae Richards’s movies; at one point Cheryl even explicitly treats the film as performative camp, miming the dialogue from Plantation Memories while sitting next to the television and donning a do-rag.
The class’s response to the film was invigorating; a great deal of the students, all of whom were born around the turn of the millennium, were surprised to learn that Dunye invented the character of “The Watermelon Woman.” They had assumed she was a real historical figure that Dunye had used to anchor her fiction. For these students, who were in the midst of learning about alternative film histories, Fae Richards and Martha Page may as well be real, considering all the lives and careers that have been buried under the avalanche of accepted white, heterosexual narratives. As we finally see Cheryl’s documentary about “The Watermelon Woman” begin to unfold over the closing credits, featuring wholly persuasive archival photographs, Dunye reminds us that all we need to do to bring the past to life is to really, finally look.
The Watermelon Woman and other films mentioned in this essay are featured in the series Queersighted: Turn the Gaze Around, programmed by Michael Koresky and available to stream in its entirety on the Criterion Channel starting June 14, 2020.