Melvin Van Peebles -wikipedia
Melvin Van Peebles Melvin Van Peebles at a photoshoot in his home/office. Photo: Alex Lozupone via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Good Thing Melvin Van Peebles Ignored All That Dumb-Ass Safe Advice

Melvin Van Peebles’ life and art are about breaking the rules, ignoring society’s “wise” advice, and following your heart.

Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films
Melvin Van Peebles
28 September 2021

Watermelon Man (1970)

Herman Raucher, a successful writer of plays and teleplays, noticed that his white liberal friends, perhaps worse than the older couple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, had unthinking racist attitudes. He devised a fantasy about a comfortably bigoted white man who wakes up black overnight.

According to Van Peebles’ account in the film’s introduction, Columbia was having trouble casting the picture and had considered Jack Lemmon and Alan Arkin. Van Peebles’ first act was to convince them that, since the character spends most of the movie black, they should hire a black actor who’d play the opening scenes in “whiteface” makeup. That actor was Godfrey Cambridge.

While Cambridge is largely forgotten today, he was among the geniuses of a new black sensibility in American film and TV. He could apply his formidable frame with equal aplomb to loud frantic comedy, spouting Yiddish as a cabbie in Bye Bye Braverman (Sidney Lumet, 1968), or buttoned-down gravitas befitting his imposing name, such as the government assassin in The President’s Analyst (Theodore J. Flicker, 1967). He played Gravedigger Jones, the raucous Harlem cop created by Chester Himes, in Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970) and Come Back, Charleston Blue (Mark Warren, 1972).

In short, his persona wasn’t limited to one type, yet he was always Cambridge and a charismatic presence. His uniqueness perhaps emerged from his atypical background for an African-American comic, having been born to parents from British Guiana (now Guyana) and spent much of his childhood in Nova Scotia. He died at only 43 in 1976, and this fact may account for such a special talent having passed from public memory.

His “whiteface” makeup for the first reel of Watermelon Man is a grotesque spectacle that is, like so much of Van Peebles’ cinema, “in our faces” and even about our faces. Actually, the first part of the magical transformation that we see is a big black rump mooning the audience, and we must take this as part of the irreverence or provocation in, as Columbia advertised it, “the uppity movie”.

Before the transformation, the film establishes that insurance salesman and suburban paterfamilias Jeff Gerber (Cambridge) is an obnoxious, facetious, overbearing smart-aleck generally disliked by all. Everything he says is at least grating and at worst offensive.

Interestingly, his unexplained and traumatic transformation into a frantic Negro-ness (“feeling a bit off-color”) doesn’t change his aggressive motormouth. Rather, his confrontational style is redirected into pointed and hilarious social commentary as he rebels against everyone’s new treatment of him. Cambridge makes this interesting even when the long middle section rather spins in place, less funny than loud.

This satirical film came on the heels of two earlier films. Carl Lerner’s Black Like Me (1964) starred James Whitmore in the fact-based story of a journalist who reported first-hand on the differences in how he was treated based on being White vs. passing as Black. A subplot in Francis Ford Coppola‘s Finian’s Rainbow (1967), based on the 1947 musical, finds a racist Southern senator (Keenan Wynn) who, after magically changing color, raises his consciousness to the point that he decides to remain Black.

The implicit message is that the worst problem with being Black in America is all the White people. This progressive assertion is folded within dated ideas like a blackface performance and discovering one’s happy musical talent.

So Watermelon Man is third in a loose ’60s trilogy about raising the consciousness of an Anglo character via racial switching, or perhaps we should say certain physical characteristics that we for odd reasons define as “race”. Society defines your “race” for you and, like Turner and Gerber, that comes with baggage you aren’t given the luxury of avoiding. One of Gerber’s first lessons is that public perception is “colored” by who’s running in public through which neighborhood.

Van Peebles claims that he prevailed upon Columbia to drop Raucher’s “it was all a dream” ending in favor of Gerber learning to accept what he cannot change and to change what he can. Always an exercise nut, Gerber now trains in a martial arts class, presumably in preparation for self-defense or even revolution.

Van Peebles’ sense of style is somewhat more reigned in than the expansive The Story of a Three Day Pass, but he still foregrounds flash montage and freeze-frame effects amid saucy self-conscious gestures. Here he’s working with photographer W. Wallace Kelley, editor Carl Kress, and himself as the composer of the highly funky musical cues that already signal a kind of subversion of the suburban sitcom feel.

Estelle Parsons plays Gerber’s wife, who turns out less liberal than she initially seems. Howard Caine plays Gerber’s boss, who’s ready to co-opt him. Mantan Moreland has one of the funniest lines, which we won’t spoil. You can spot Erin Moran as Gerber’s daughter, Paul Williams as an employment clerk, and Van Peebles as the door painter on Gerber’s office.

With this box office hit under his belt, Van Peebles could have remained in the mainstream. Columbia offered him a three-picture deal. Instead, he chose to pursue his muse in a direction of producing and distributing an independent film on his own terms, and that film was–