Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a rewatch.
The Groundbreaker: The Watermelon Woman
Strange how Cheryl Dunye, one of the great lesbian filmmakers of our time, has had such a low-profile career. After a series of short and experimental films, Dunye arrived on the New Queer Cinema scene with her rom-com/drama The Watermelon Woman, which combined scripted and documentary film techniques into a meta-narrative that walks the line between reality and fantasy.
The film stars Dunye as Cheryl, an alternate-reality version of herself: a black lesbian film enthusiast. While doing research on classic films of the 03s and 40s, Dunye becomes fascinated by an actress billed only as “The Watermelon Woman” (an unfortunate real-life practice for African-American actresses, who had to adopt caricature-like stage names rather than use their own). Cheryl becomes obsessed with learning more about the woman, particularly after she discovers that the actress in question was also a lesbian. Meanwhile, Cheryl also begins a flirtation with the beautiful Diana (Guinevere Turner), a leggy, brainy beauty with a passion for film of her own.
The Watermelon Woman uses its unusual format to comment on everything from queer dating to historical erasure to racism and homophobia. Dunye closes the film with a title card revealing that the story of the film is fiction by necessity: sometimes, thanks to the erasure of queer history, we have to imagine our own. It’s also not hard to see the wide-ranging influence of the film in contemporary LGBTQ artists such as Lee Daniels, John Cameron Mitchell, Mark Christopher, Todd Haynes, and, in particular, Lena Waithe. That Dunye has only made one feature film since The Watermelon Woman is our loss.
Quirky, funny, and inspiring, we offer it up as both an overlooked LGBTQ romantic comedy, and an inspiration: even when we must fill in the gaps of our own history with fiction, we can still find truth.
Streams on Showtime, Amazon, YouTube & Hulu.