Film Reviews

The Watermelon Woman: 90’s Film About Finding An Actress

The Watermelon Woman is an independent film from the ’90s that is about the search for a fictional actress from the 1930s. The original 90’s poster art of the film looks offensive, but it’s a part of what the story is about referencing black actor roles in Golden Age cinema. This romantic comedy drama was filmed partially as a fictional autobiographical film. The title is a play on the 1970’s film title The Watermelon Man which is about racial identity, prejudice and society. This film is sometimes on specialty movie television channels like TCM which is how I watched both films (The Watermelon Woman and The Watermelon Man) for the first time. But the film is also available from The Criterion Collection and MUBI.

Cheryl is talking to her camera in front of a wall with photos of the unknown actress sitting down.
Screenshot of The Watermelon Woman (1996). Cheryl talking to the camera for her research paper.

The Watermelon Woman is about a young aspiring black lesbian filmmaker, Cheryl, trying to find information about a 1930’s actress known for playing stereotypical “mammy” roles during the golden age of cinema for a research paper and documentary assignment. In the film credits of the unknown actress, she is credited as the “Watermelon Woman” even though her name is Fae Richards. Her reasoning to do this documentary topic for her assignment on black actresses in film history is because there is not a lot of information known about black actresses especially during the 1930s when she becomes fixated on this one actress. Throughout Cheryl’s documentary filmmaking, we see her visit her mother where she goes through her old archive of stuff. She also starts to date a female patron from her video rental store where she works with her friend Tamara who sometimes moonlights as her camera assistant to their joint video filming business.

The acting in this film is very laid back and relaxed. The film looked like it was a bit in the life of a young filmmaker meets viewing old archive footage of a golden age actress. Cheryl goes on a hunt to unravel the mystery of who is Fae Richards and what kind of life she had. Cheryl goes on detective mode when she is researching traces of the life of the actress travelling around the East Coast for information about her. The film has narration from Cheryl in a diary format with her filming herself talking about her life and her research paper when is talking about the unknown actress. In the side story about the relationship with Diana, tensions between her friend and Cheryl clash. These parts of the film are the more interesting parts to watch because of the building drama.

Cheryl and Diana are on a date talking. Both women are happy and smiling sitting down looking at each other.
Screenshot of The Watermelon Woman (1996). Diana (left) and Cheryl (right) talking.

The film has practical and simple cinematography techniques with a still one-camera setup. The film shows Cheryl going through boxes with childhood memories when she visits her mother. The camera was stationed on one side of the room with the actors walking around the area naturally. When Cheryl is at the video store working behind the counter, the camera rarely goes behind the counter when they work at the front desk.

Cheryl and Tamara talking about dating at the video store. Both women are at the front desk with shelves of VHS behind them.
Screenshot of The Watermelon Woman (1996). Cheryl (left) and Tamara (right) talking.

The film has four types of video qualities used for storytelling. The sharpest film quality is when there is no camera and it is Cheryl in her own life talking and interacting with other people. The second video quality that is slightly grainy is when is filming herself discussing the unknown actress to the camera for her research assignment. This is possibly the only time there are multiple fourth wall breaks in the film. The third is when she is filming freelance work with Tamara. This is the more stereotypical VHS quality that was typical in VHS video filming that is seen sparingly throughout the film. The quality is grainy with the image not focused in the frame. And fictional archives of Fae Richards are in black and white.

This was the first film for Cheryl Dunye as director of The Watermelon Woman who also starred in this fictionalized version of herself. The film’s overall theme is about the representation of black people and LGBTQ people in film history. The film is known as a landmark in New Queer Cinema, an independent film movement that started in the early-90s that focused on LGBTQ storytelling. This film was also the first film created by a black lesbian.

Cheryl Dunye recreated scenes based on 1930s archival cinema footage to cut down on production costs. 78 photos made up the life of Fae Richards were taken by New York City photographer Zoe Leonard. The film builds up the fictional character of the unknown actress by referencing the 1930s black film industry and the popularity of black stage theatres in the ’30s and ’40s. Cheryl references race movies (films produced for black audiences between 1919 to 1950) while watching the rare occurrence of seeing the actress in a film with lines not cast as a servant in film. It also touches on how some film scholars do not know anything about black films and gay people in the film industry before a certain point in modern culture.

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance
Year: 1996
Duration: 90 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Three out of five stars

All screenshots are from the film
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