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The Watermelon Woman: Faking It/Making It

<i>The Watermelon Woman:</i> Faking It/Making It

Two friends find themselves stubbornly intertwined yet comically at odds. They’re Black, they’re lesbians, they work at a video-rental store in Philadelphia—and they’re ambitious, too, though not to the same end. Cheryl is eager to complete her first film, though she struggles to find direction; Tamara seeks romantic and domestic bliss, pushing for a closer relationship with her busy girlfriend, Stacey. The pair shoot a wedding and argue over the pay and then the B-roll. At the ceremony, a smattering of Black attendees, as well as a Black server, seem out of place among all the white people—it’s an interracial marriage. The Watermelon Woman (1996), filmmaker Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature, chronicles the entanglements of love and friendship, art and self-invention, and the dreaded “race relations” by straddling real and imagined auto/biography. Dunye (who also plays Cheryl, a fictionalized version of herself) focuses the beginning of the film on seemingly offhand exposition—interpersonal conflicts and funny mishaps unfold at the wedding and video store. But these low-key moments accrue and lead to revelations that reach beyond the limits—and clichés—of “storytelling.” The Watermelon Woman is as invested in ideas as it is in characterization, as curious about how relationships come together—and apart—as it is in the identities and ideologies that undergird them.

At its core, the film is a romantic comedy. Cheryl—single, stubborn, and film-obsessed—bristles at the attempts by Tamara (Valarie Walker) to get her shacked up. A karaoke night at a local club plays out to a hilarious conclusion: Yvette (Kathy Robertson), Cheryl’s hyperfemme, long-limbed blind date, sings an absurdly off-key rendition of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You.” Tamara wants Cheryl to find romantic partnership that meshes with the social requirements of her own Black lesbian romance (the date is a friend of Stacey’s). Cheryl, however, is more interested in making her film—short interviews that Cheryl shoots in Philadelphia and elsewhere for her project are interwoven throughout The Watermelon Woman.

Cheryl continues to resist the idea of coupling up until someone wanders into the video store, obviously interested. The interloper in question is Diana (Guinevere Turner, cowriter and star of the 1994 lesbian film Go Fish, directed by Rose Troche), who, Tamara quips, “has nice bone structure, if you’re into white girls.” (Tamara also takes an immediate disliking to a new coworker, Annie—played by Shelley Olivier—a white Bryn Mawr graduate with blond streaks in her hair and a punk aesthetic.) Tamara wants Cheryl to pursue Yvette, but Cheryl is turned off by Yvette’s attitude and presentation. At first, Tamara seems neutral about Diana—who wears the casually chic threads of someone who has always fit in—and curious about Cheryl’s dalliances with her. But that changes after a double date during which Diana puts superlocal Stacey off with her well-traveled connectedness, expressed with an aloof arrogance. Tamara later tells Cheryl that she thinks Diana “wants to be Black” and that Cheryl’s interest in white girls (this isn’t the first one she has dated) belies her own Blackness. Their friendship goes downhill from there.

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