The Watermelon Woman
Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valerie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson,
“Funky screwball comedy in the key of queer” is how critic B. Ruby Rich characterized The Watermelon Woman, the first feature of video artist/comedienne Cheryl Dunye. In it, Dunye plays a lesbian video-store clerk and would-be filmmaker who becomes obsessed with uncovering the history of a star of the early “race” films, the so-called Watermelon Woman. It develops that this “mammy” was a sister, as Cheryl’s research uncovers an affair with a white woman filmmaker à la Dorothy Arzner. The plot allows Dunye to incorporate a pastiche of footage—from fabulous black-and-white “plantation” melodramas to interviews with real-life notables (including Camille Paglia) who bite the bait—into her very intelligent unraveling of cultural icons. Meanwhile, Cheryl takes up her own interracial romance, with a white customer (Guinevere Turner). Dunye has been compared to Yvonne Rainer in her style of personable self-referential disjunction, and to Isaac Julien for her cultural irreverence and absolute relevance.