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The Watermelon Woman
The Cast Is Toasted: Cheryl Dunye (from left), Guinevere Turner, Lisa Marie Bronson and Valarie Walker raise their glasses in 'The Watermelon Woman.'

Cheryl Dunye goes in search of stereotypes in 'Watermelon Woman'

By Richard von Busack

A CLEAN, BRIGHT and unsentimental first film by Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman does everything a no- budget debut ought to do. It explores a particular small topic and expands upon it until it encompasses the life and times of the filmmaker. In this mockumentary, Dunne plays herself, a black lesbian from the hip part of Philadelphia, armed with a camera and in search of a topic. Watching movies from the video store where she works, Dunye catches a glimpse of Fae Richards, known as the "Watermelon Woman," a bit performer who used to play mammy parts in low-budget Hollywood movies like Plantation Memories (1937).

Researching Richards, who was from Philly, Dunye meets obstacles. Archives such as "The Center for Lesbian Information and Technology" (C.L.I.T. for short) don't want to help her; and Richards' surviving friends would like to have that painful chapter in the history of African Americans in films closed. Worst of all, Dunye faces the gradual suspicion of her best friend, the attitudinal Tamara (Valarie Walker). Tamara's temper worsens when Dunye starts dating a young white lesbian named Diana (Guinevere Turner of Go Fish).

The Watermelon Woman sports numerous cameos, including one by Camille Paglia, overacting shamelessly as a Swarthmore professor with some half-baked ideas about the spirituality represented by the fruit of the watermelon vine. Brian Freeman, of the hilarious improv troupe the Pomo Afro Homos, appears as a collector of black-film memorabilia. Uncredited but also funny is the would-be singer who performs a grisly karaoke version of the old Minnie Ripperton hit "Lovin' You"--she can't emit Ripperton's porpoise squeak on the chorus, so she just moans like a toothache patient instead.

Dunye's approaches her meaty subject from a fresh angle. The research process questions Dunye's place in the world as she negotiates the concentric circles of who is a sister (a lesbian) and who is a "sister" (a black woman). Alone at the end of the movie, Dunye provides a biography for the imaginary, shadowy Richards. But what Dunye also discovers is that despite how free and uncloseted she is in her life, the same inexplicable prejudices that kept the Watermelon Woman playing maids and mammies are still bedeviling her--and finally, that these prejudices are the most tangible part of the past she's trying to unearth.


The Watermelon Woman (Unrated; 80 min.), directed and written by Cheryl Dunye, photographed by Michelle Crenshaw and starring Dunye, Guinevere Turner and Valarie Walker.

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