The Watermelon Woman (1996)

WatermelonWomanPoster.JPGDirector: Cheryl Dunye
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Certification: 15
Starring: Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Lisa Marie Bronson, Cheryl Clarke, Irene Dunye, Brian Freeman, Camille Paglia

Before it's even started, the directorial debut of Cheryl Dunye is an important feature film. Notably, this was the first film to have been directed by a queer Black woman (or at least, the first who had come out). Outside of its place in history, this is an engrossing feature makes the already lean runtime fly by. The story follows Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a young Black lesbian who works in a video store, and tries navigating through relationships. In her spare time, she's an aspiring filmmaker who wants to make a documentary, centred around a Black actress from the 1930s, who was referred to as "The Watermelon Woman".

Through the use of a fictional star, Dunye approaches the historical context of how Black actresses were relegated to the stereotypical "Mammy" roles. The forgotten history of these actresses highlights a key theme, about the importance of telling Black women's stories, and how largely underserved their history is. Sadly, this is something which still needs to be worked on. Just look at how we're yet to get a story on Marsha P. Johnson, a key figure in the Stonewall Uprising of 1969, but 2019 had room for two depictions of Fox News CEO, and sexual harasser, Roger Ailes.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the titular character was real, a figure long forgotten by history, brought alive through discovered material. But the material are stunning recreations. The archive footage looks utterly real, but most impressive are the glamour photos, gorgeous creations by photographer Zoe Leonard. As the feature shows our characters living their lives, Dunye also intersperses documentary footage, looking like genuine low-budget documentary one could watch.

After doing research into the forgotten actress, Cheryl feels a kinship with her, and it's easily felt. You believe it in how Cheryl throws herself into discovering more information, wanting to tell her story above all else, and especially through the look in the characters eyes. Aiding her work is Tamara, her friend that's looking out for her, even if it comes out as judgemental. Valarie Walker does able work in playing the role. We also see Cheryl in a burgeoning relationship with Diana, a white woman who's new to town. Guinevere Turner may be known best for her screenwriting, especially for 2000's American Psycho, but she puts in an excellent performance before the camera. You buy into the blossoming romance she's in, while never believing that's all there is to the character.

Much as I hate to admit it, there are a few issues I had with the film. The way scenes are edited, it can feel rather sudden how they end, and can cut off at inopportune moments. There's also the way relationships are handled near the end, as they fall apart in rapid succession. This is before wrapping things up in a sudden manner, as an extra 5 minutes could've been beneficial. But these aren't large issues, as we're left with something so hilarious and heartfelt, with something important to say.

The Watermelon Woman is available to stream on BFI Player, and to rent from Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube in the UK.