Whenever a woman achieves at a high level in a field typically dominated by men, we are compelled to compare her to an iconic man. This is exactly the case with Cheryl Dunye whose experimental, playful films have earned her the titles of: “The lesbian Spike Lee” (Newsday) and “Woody Allen refashioned as an African American lesbian” (New York Press). While the work of both of these men certainly have helped to make room for artists like Dunye, and while Dunye’s lesbian subject matter certainly distinguishes her from Lee and Allen, The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye also deserves to be recognized for the elements that she brings to film and filmmaking that Spike Lee, and others, cannot bring by virtue of subject position, access, and popular appeal.
Dunye’s more popular work, her first feature film, The Watermelon Woman; HBO film, Stranger Inside; and her most recent film My Baby’s Daddy, that played in theaters across the US, explores and challenges race and sexuality and tells stories about women that are rarely told in mainstream popular culture. Because much of her subject matter includes lesbian themes, Dunye’s work is also compared to other landmark lesbian films. For instance, one reviewer describes Watermelon Woman as “Go Fish meets She Gotta Have It”, once again proving that when critics attempt to fit someone like Cheryl Dunye into a preconceived box, she’s not going to fit.
Dunye’s early work demonstrates exactly why she doesn’t fit and why she deserves her own place within and across each of the categories her work crosses including narrative, experimental narrative, video montage, and experimental documentary. Dunye is recognized for her unique style, referred to as the “Dunyementary”, a style that blends narrative and documentary techniques and that Dunye describes as “a mix of film, video, friends, and a lot of heart”. This style brings a variety of interesting elements to these works from the interspliced narration that frames and unfolds the story in “She Don’t Fade” to the montage, photo album feel of “An Untitled Portrait” to the artistic, exploratory feel of “Vanilla Sex”. These short films represent the development of Dunye and her work and this DVD is a valuable resource for Lesbian, Women’s, and African American film as well as for the larger tradition of American filmmaking.
Spanning 1990-1994, The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye explores identity, race, culture, desire, sexuality, politics, family, relationships, and provides stories that help to fill the chasm that Dunye recognizes as the impetus for her work—the lack of films about, and images of, African American lesbians. The DVD cover and menu options provide a helpful guide to The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye. The DVD cover includes a short blurb about each film while the DVD menu takes the viewer to a short intro screen for each film with year, time, and title as well as words from Dunye about the film.
Some DVD cover blurbs are more helpful than others. “The Potluck and the Passion”, for instance, is described as: “Sparks fly as racial, sexual and social politics intermingle at a lesbian potluck” is an accurate and intriguing title. On the other hand, “Janine” is described as “the story of a black lesbian’s relationship with a white, upper middle class high school girl”, which is accurate, but does not fully capture the importance of what this film is about.
“Janine” was Dunye’s first film as an MFA student (info we find on the DVD intro screen) and more than being about her relationship with Janine, a best friend from childhood and adolescence, this film is about the pain that Janine caused Dunye not only because Dunye wanted to be like her, wanted to be white and rich, but also because Janine was judgmental, narrow-minded, and of a world that didn’t have to be concerned with others’ worlds. Thus, this film is more about the social and cultural contexts than it is about the lesbian relationship. The raw emotion that Dunye shows during and after the telling of this story is moving and this film provides a fitting introduction to Dunye’s work as well as the DVD as a whole.
From the DVD features we also learn that “Greetings from Africa” where Dunye, playing herself, explores lesbian dating in the 1990s, was the first film for which she had a real budget and crew and this was the film that allowed her to raise the money for The Watermelon Woman. The expectation via the tile is that this film will somehow explore Dunye’s African roots. Instead, the “greetings” from Africa are the contents of a strange postcard from an enigmatic white woman who was one of the failed dating attempts that Dunye’s character(s) experience. A successful love connection is found in “She Don’t Fade”; and the “sequel” follows in “The Potluck and the Passion”. These works, and the entire DVD, demonstrate just some of what is unique about Dunye and her work.
Bonus materials on the DVD include an interview with Cheryl Dunye from a 1997 DVD compilation Lavender Limelight: Lesbians in Film, the Director’s Introduction, and a piece, “About the Watermelon Woman”. While the latter is pretty useless, throughout the DVD there is a personal touch with Dunye’s first-person descriptions, the interview, and Director’s introduction that mesh nicely with the personal stories in her films.