Don’t make it too clear that we’re saying “Fuck you.”Melvin Van Peebles to Mantan Moreland, 1969
Melvin Van Peebles’s blistering satire Watermelon Man (1970)—the only film that he made for a Hollywood studio—has long lived in the shadows of his other work, especially the film that immediately followed it, the popular and controversial 1971 Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. The story of one man’s evolution from apolitical sex performer to Black Power revolutionary, Sweet Sweetback altered the trajectory of Black representation in Hollywood with its complex portrayal of Black identity and experience and its deliberately political message. Its success signaled the commercial viability of Black films at the box office, making it a pivotal moment in the representation of Blackness on-screen. Because of Sweet Sweetback’s status, Watermelon Man has typically been discussed mainly as a prelude to it, setting up the filmmaker’s shift from Hollywood studio director to independent maverick.
But Watermelon Man merits appreciation in its own right, not only for its often overlooked revolutionary themes—which build on the sentiments of Van Peebles’s first feature, The Story of a Three Day Pass (1967), and anticipate the politics of Sweet Sweetback—but also, and most importantly, because it demonstrates how Black directors are able to realize their creative and ideological visions, crafting ingenious ways to articulate their perspectives, even while working within antagonistic institutions. Both Watermelon Man and the story of how Van Peebles made the film can indeed be thought of as metaphors for the Black experience in Hollywood more broadly. And so Van Peebles’s brief but significant experience as a director under contract with Columbia Pictures is much more than a footnote. It stands as a testament to his ambition to criticize Hollywood’s and society’s racism, as he said, “from the inside out.”
Watermelon Man should be seen as part of Van Peebles’s career-long history of critiquing America’s racial narratives—a unique articulation of his already fully formed creative and political consciousness—rather than as a stop along the way in his evolution as a filmmaker. Frustrated by his inability to secure a foothold in Hollywood as he embarked on his filmmaking career in the late 1950s, Van Peebles had decamped to the Netherlands and later settled in Paris, where he directed The Story of a Three Day Pass, a sweet and melancholy tale about a Black soldier who finds romance with a white Frenchwoman during a short military leave. It is crucial to understand Three Day Pass in light of the 1967 Stanley Kramer–directed film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which takes on the topic of interracial relationships but primarily attends to the interpersonal dynamics of the assorted family members and the effect of the impending marriage on a white patriarch. By contrast, Van Peebles focuses his film on the various social and power structures that constitute race in France and how they come to bear on the emotional and psychological well-being of the Black main character.
I mention Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, released the same year as Three Day Pass, because it demonstrates the radical difference between Van Peebles’s and Hollywood’s perspectives on shared subject matter at the same moment. With Watermelon Man, Van Peebles would take aim directly at Hollywood’s ways of representing race and narrativizing racial issues, with the filmmaker literally incorporating the aesthetics of American iconography—specifically, that of the television situation comedy—as a weapon in his satirical arsenal. What’s more, Watermelon Man gradually pivots from a critique of Hollywood’s, and America’s, investment in whiteness to a promise of Black revolution. Though not often talked about in revolutionary terms, Watermelon Man shares thematic elements with the more explicitly political Sweet Sweetback. Both films involve protagonists who are initially resistant to revolutionary politics, and both films focus on the characters’ journeys to that epiphany. Yet the closing scene of Watermelon Man is not merely the beginning of an idea that Van Peebles would elaborate on in Sweet Sweetback but rather another incarnation of it. These components of Watermelon Man suggest different manifestations of Van Peebles’s overarching commitment to a Black subversive aesthetic.
Watermelon Man is the story of Jeff Gerber, a white bigot who wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned Black overnight. The film follows Gerber as he experiences life as a Black man and gradually develops a Black subjectivity. The project began as a screenplay by white writer Herman Raucher, under the title The Night the Sun Came Out on Happy Hollow Lane. Columbia, interested in the political cachet of hiring a Black director amid pushes for more Black talent behind the camera, signed Van Peebles to a three-picture deal, to commence with Watermelon Man. The studio was making what it saw as a safe bet on the relatively inexperienced (at least within a Hollywood context) director, with Van Peebles having just won critical praise and an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival for The Story of a Three Day Pass. Van Peebles recalled, “When they heard about me, Hollywood sent a plane for me to come down. This is while the [San Francisco International Film] Festival was still going on. They weren’t taking any chances, because all companies had to show their goodwill that they were trying to recruit black directors.” The studio’s goal—to make a satire that would capitalize on contemporary social issues in a manner palatable to white audiences—is evident in production memos from the time, such as one that stated, “The advertising approach should appeal to the amusement-seeking audience, and should strongly indicate that this is a picture that they will enjoy. Any message and/or social commentary inherent in the film will make its point as it was intended to—by indirection.” In addition, the studio was confident in its assumption that Van Peebles would straightforwardly execute its vision for the film. Yet Van Peebles deftly thwarted its expectations at every level, skillfully maneuvering within Columbia’s restrictions to ultimately produce a film that skewers society’s and popular culture’s infatuation with whiteness.
The first hurdle emerged early on with the studio’s suggestion that a white actor be cast in the lead role and perform in blackface throughout the film, even though the character is white for only about ten minutes of the run time—a proposal that Van Peebles flat-out refused. He ultimately won this battle and cast Black actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge, directing him to “act white,” in an exaggerated way, while wearing whiteface. The opening of Watermelon Man demonstrates how artfully Van Peebles channeled the tensions between his vision and that of the studio into a powerful commentary on race. When the audience first sees Gerber, he is exercising at home on extravagant equipment. After his workout, he uses a tanning bed. The shots of Gerber’s routine are choppily intercut with images of his white, middle-class life: framed photographs of his white children; a shot of his white wife putting on sensible nude-colored pumps and inserting pieces of white bread into a toaster—a subsequent shot of the result, brown toast, foreshadows Gerber’s transformation. This initial depiction of his daily morning ritual demonstrates the process that he must go through to achieve the perfect whiteness, and reveals that white masculinity is a construction that must be carefully maintained. By the time that he sits down to breakfast in a tableau of the perfect all-American family—wife, two children, and glasses of wholesome orange juice—his hypervisible whiteness casts an ironic tone on the scene. In the film, Jeff Gerber becomes noticeably more natural and subtle in his behavior and mannerisms the longer that he resides in his “changed” Black body.
“Van Peebles’s crucial move to use a Black actor in whiteface transforms the film into a metacritique on the nature of racial representation.”
Van Peebles’s crucial move to use a Black actor in whiteface transforms the film into a metacritique on the nature of racial representation, as the makeup that Cambridge wears at the beginning of the film works in conjunction with the performance of his racial identity to launch a biting critique of whiteness in civil-rights-era America. If Watermelon Man had been made according to the studio’s initial specifications—with Jack Lemmon playing a normal white family man who turns Black overnight and learns the error of his ways—it would have essentially been a tale of white redemption through a temporary foray into Blackness. Cambridge’s over-the-top performance as the white Gerber, complete with wide smiles, boisterous laughter, and exaggerated movements, transforms whiteness into something bizarre and unnatural, a powerful accomplishment by itself. On this level of aesthetics, Watermelon Man uses whiteface to reverse the logic of whiteness as norm, having the effect of “making whiteness strange,” in the words of scholar Richard Dyer, and unmasking the power structure by which whiteness masquerades as unraced norm and becomes synonymous with “Americanness.”
By casting Cambridge, the film also attacks the concept of white privilege. Although most press coverage of Watermelon Man referred to Gerber as a bigot, it might be more accurate to say that he is a white man who does not understand his own white privilege and how he is implicated in the racist oppression of Black people. For instance, while Gerber does not explicitly hate Black people, he also views the civil rights movement as background noise emanating from his television, an annoyance to be turned off rather than a pressing social-justice movement to be understood. He enjoys bantering with the elderly Black waiter—played by veteran comedic actor Mantan Moreland—who serves him his daily coffee, never thinking that the man may not enjoy Gerber’s anti-Black jokes. Gerber’s life is so financially and socially comfortable that he has invented a daily challenge for himself to give it a bit of drama: he runs to catch his bus each morning, thrilled by the rush of exhilaration that he experiences when he almost misses it. He is a man so privileged by his whiteness, and so insulated from his awareness of it, that he literally has to invent hardships for himself.
The debate over casting was a sign of things to come in the film’s production. Columbia had gone out of its way to court the young director. However, things changed once Van Peebles signed his contract. Whereas the industry standard was sixty days of shooting, Columbia allowed Van Peebles a mere thirty-one. Given this early restriction, Van Peebles quickly surmised that the studio wanted the positive press from hiring a Black director, and to add credibility to the film by having a film-festival darling at the helm, but had little interest in giving him the tools he needed to create a successful picture.
Furthermore, the studio did not seem to have any real investment in what Black audiences might think about the film. As Van Peebles recounted to me in 2013, Columbia executives one day called a Black administrative assistant into their office, showed her the footage from the day’s filming, and asked for her opinion on the racial content and tone of the film, a makeshift “focus group” consisting of one person. No doubt intimidated by the situation, the young woman simply endorsed whatever statements the executives made. Later, Van Peebles said, the executives approached a man who shined shoes at the studio to get confirmation that the film was indeed entertaining to a Black demographic. The man gave the film a ringing endorsement, praising the work that Van Peebles was doing. Little did the executives know that Van Peebles—now aware of the shoddy “research” that the studio was conducting about Black audiences—had decided to “use the enemy’s power against them.” He had hired the man to tell the studio executives exactly what they wanted to hear.
Van Peebles wisely decided to choose his battles with Columbia when it came to casting the film. Beyond the lead, he left most of the decisions to the studio. One exception to this, however, was his casting of Mantan Moreland. Moreland’s popularity as a comedic actor had peaked in the forties with his signature role as Birmingham Brown in the Charlie Chan movies (1944–49) and appearances in big Hollywood films such as Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943). His career waned amid shifting social perceptions about what some saw as “buffoonish” stereotypes, for which Moreland became the unfortunate poster child. When Gerber first encounters Moreland’s character in Watermelon Man, Gerber is still white. Cheerful and exaggeratedly deferential, Moreland’s counterman is a self-conscious parody of his own past roles. His character laughs boisterously when Gerber tells a racist joke about all Black people looking alike, and Van Peebles underscores the moment by inserting banjo music during the exchange. Moreland’s over-the-top performance clearly gestures toward the “buffoonish” trope that he was known for. But when Gerber offers a toast to the counterman’s health, the music suddenly goes silent. Just for an instant, Moreland’s facial expression transforms into a grimace, but this brief pause is cut short by a telephone ringing in the diner, at which point the counterman shakes his head as if waking from a daydream, apologizes to Gerber, opens his eyes wide (one of Moreland’s trademarks), and hurries off to answer the phone. This sequence—a brilliant synthesis of Van Peebles’s direction and Moreland’s acting—functions as a metacritique of Hollywood’s history of racist representations. Van Peebles wanted it to be subtle enough to get past the white Columbia executives, but he made sure that knowing audiences would see the scene for what it was: a satire of the type of racial stereotypes that Hollywood had perpetuated or created through its limited use of actors such as Moreland, Lincoln “Stepin Fetchit” Perry, Willie Best, and others.
In his self-referential performance, Moreland’s acting calls attention to the constructed nature of the characters he has played throughout his career, just as Cambridge’s whiteface calls attention to the constructed nature of whiteness in the same scene. Furthermore, the fleeting glimpse of displeasure beneath the comic facade suggests Moreland’s own frustration with playing such characters, as well as many other Black artists’ feelings about working in Hollywood more generally. Van Peebles’s inspired use of Moreland also reminds us of the double-sided nature of Black comedy in white spaces as both straightforward entertainment and a Trojan horse housing Black social critique. Van Peebles has admitted that his strategy in Watermelon Man and other films was to engage Black stereotypes and then use them to attack the systems that had created them. In Van Peebles’s words, “Take the stereotypes and kick ass with the motherfuckers. That’s how you do it.”
Van Peebles also interjected in ways that the studio likely deemed insignificant at the time, such as composing his own musical score for the film. And he even managed to turn Columbia’s decisions against them. For instance, allusions to American television sitcoms were initially not Van Peebles’s design but rather the result of the studio’s choices in cast and crew: art director Malcolm C. Bert and set decorator John Burton had extensive backgrounds in domestic comedies, and Scott Garrett and Erin Moran, who play Gerber’s son and daughter, were both child actors on television. But Van Peebles took these intertextual references and turned them on their head via an ingenious use of cinematography, editing, and sound, presenting a view of the American dream that is noticeably awry: numerous bizarre close-ups of the family’s morning routine and a hyperfocus on the elements of the “typical” American family transform the early scenes into a deliciously strange send-up of the image of traditional white Americana. In some ways, this aspect of Watermelon Man anticipates Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film Get Out, and the way the basement where that lead character is kept shackled is essentially a suburban rec room.
Finally, when Van Peebles anticipated studio objections, he sometimes simply lied or withheld important information, such as in his fight with Columbia over the ending of the film, one of the biggest issues of contention between director and studio. Originally, the script called for the main character to wake up at the end of the film only to realize that the whole experience had been a dream. This ending would have framed Gerber’s entire experience as a Black man as a nightmare, something that Van Peebles understood and refused to consider. He preferred a different conclusion: Gerber remains Black and also joins a Black revolutionary group. According to Van Peebles, rather than have this fight about the ending at the outset, he told Columbia that he was shooting both endings and would allow the studio final choice. Then he delayed showing them either version until after the sets had been dismantled and the actors dismissed, at which point the director admitted that he had shot only one ending. Though this was a risky maneuver, Van Peebles correctly guessed that the studio would not want to spend the money to reassemble the set and the cast just to shoot the ending that it wanted. As he explained, “Everybody has an Achilles’ pocketbook.”
The ending of Watermelon Man turns into a radical inversion of its television-sitcom opening. Once again, we witness Jeff Gerber, now Black instead of white, performing exercise maneuvers. There is even a callback to the camera angles and musical soundtrack of the opening sequences. The camera quickly pulls back, however, and we see that Gerber is not alone but participating in a kind of revolutionary battle training with a group of Black men. Wielding brooms and mops, the men strike a number of attack poses, transforming these symbols of domestic servitude into tools of combat. The final shot—a lightning-fast zoom in on Gerber thrusting his weapon toward the camera—confirms that his transformation is complete. Although the closing shot is powerful in its own right, its true brilliance is in this inversion of the film’s saccharine image of white Americana.
These wonderfully subtle and thoroughly subversive elements make Watermelon Man a truly remarkable film, whose major themes—white privilege, Black subjectivity, liberal white racism—feel just as relevant today as they did on the film’s release in 1970. Especially in the wake of the George Floyd protests of 2020, the notion of interrogating white privilege—once a taboo subject—has become de rigueur in conversations across all spheres of American life and work. Yet, ironically, it is the slyness of Van Peebles’s presentation of these concepts and the seamlessness of Watermelon Man’s integration of them with white mainstream aesthetic elements that have led to the film’s dismissal as a mere prelude to Sweet Sweetback. These misunderstandings obfuscate Van Peebles’s skills as both an artist and an industry disrupter, and create a binary between independent and Hollywood film that is ultimately unproductive in understanding the complexity of Black experiences in the film industry.
If we understood Watermelon Man as a fully formed expression of Van Peebles’s larger creative vision, we might also gain an appreciation for the slippages between independent filmmaking and Hollywood production more broadly. These distinctions grow even messier with the constant shifts in the film and media landscapes, such as the impact of the rise of cable and streaming networks on conventional means of production, exhibition, and reception. Indeed, Hollywood films—as exemplified by Watermelon Man—can and do offer thoughtful explorations of race and racism, even though their methods of doing so may be more fraught than those of independent films.
Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man is an example of a Hollywood film that expresses a Black-oriented perspective in spite of the myriad factors actively working to suppress any manifestation of Black radical politics. At a time when some still saw blackface as an acceptable mode of representation for Blackness and the very concept of a Black director in Hollywood was still a novelty (some might argue it still is), Van Peebles’s accomplishment in Watermelon Man is a testament to his creative brilliance, ingenuity, and sheer force of will. It was not Van Peebles’s first battle with oppressive systems, nor would it be his last. But with its acerbic wit and genuinely fresh take on American ideals, the film is perhaps his most impressive and satisfying triumph.
This piece is adapted from one that first appeared in the fall 2014 issue of Film Quarterly. Many thanks to B. Ruby Rich for her support and enthusiasm for this research. And my most heartfelt gratitude to Melvin Van Peebles for graciously allowing me to interview him about his experiences working on Watermelon Man.
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