Cheryl Dunye, Guinevere Turner in The Watermelon Woman (1996)

‘The Watermelon Woman’, or, Whatever Happened to New Queer Cinema?

A disturbing trend is arising; if you want your film to be nominated for the Academy Awards, it cannot potentially offend the sensibilities of the most narrow-minded “gay friendly” viewer.

In terms of the number of LGBTQ people represented on film and television, the statistics have never been better. According to GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), more gay, lesbian, bi, and transgender people have appeared on cable, streaming services, and network television than ever before. Moonlight, a film of subtle beauty and emotional poignancy, has rightfully been nominated for eight Academy Awards. Orange Is the New Black, one of the most popular streaming shows, features the transgender actress Laverne Cox, who was the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award.

Watch The Watermelon Woman to see how it negotiates and reclaims Hollywood’s racist past, and how it establishes what a black lesbian gaze might look like.

Yet something remains unsettling. A recent The Guardian article seems to circle around the issue when it asks, “Does Moonlight show gay cinema has to be sexless to succeed?” Although the numbers of gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer films and television shows have increased in recent years, most adhere to very narrow parameters of representation and cinematic form. Moonlight indeed incorporates some stunning visuals moments such as a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) being taught how to swim by his surrogate father figure. In this scene music swells and a camera bobs through lapping ocean waves, thus expressing his world being opened up by the unlikely figure of a drug dealer, of Chiron’s emotions extending beyond himself, his being expanding like the ocean itself. Yet there’s only one sexual encounter in the entire film, which ultimately substitutes any explicit sexual representation for the undoubtedly poetic image of a hand grasping at sand in orgasmic bliss.

This is not to say all gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, and queer films must include explicit sexual material. However, a disturbing trend is arising that if you want your film to be nominated for the Academy Awards, it cannot potentially offend the sensibilities of the most narrow-minded “gay friendly” viewer. Brokeback Mountain was the last gay-themed film to earn so many accolades by Hollywood, and it also kept explicit sexual material off-screen. There was a joke at the time of Brokeback Mountain‘s release in 2005 that the real gay film of that year was another Jake Gyllenhaal film, Jarhead. In it, half-naked men danced with one another onscreen, drinking and carousing as they waited to fight the Iraqi enemy. The fog of war and violence has always provided cover for gay sensibilities to manifest themselves semi-explicitly in Hollywood films (see Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Fight Club (1999), Troy (2004), and 300 (2006)).

Yet when one compares the present moment with the promising potential when New Queer Cinema erupted in the early ’90s, it cannot help but feel like a step backward. Informed by the struggles occurring on the streets against the AIDS epidemic, New Queer Cinema directors marshaled their cameras to translate their experiences, struggles, sexuality, artistic and political influences, and desires to the big screen. Their ranks included Mark Rappaport, Todd Haynes, Rose Troche, Sheila McLaughlin, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, Ellen Spiro, Maria Maggenti, and Stephan Elliott, to only name a few. The excitement and newness of their material seemed like a collective assault on the screen, announcing a new generation of filmmakers who either broke ranks with the older cinematic formulas or queered them in totally new directions. I would venture to say that New Queer Cinema still remains the most recent innovative wave of filmmaking within US cinema to this day.

Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman rides on the crest of New Queer Cinema wave. Like many inspired first feature-length films, it’s a raucous, intense, and playful work. One can feel Dunye trying to smuggle as many issues as she can into her film since, after all, when has a black lesbian filmmaker ever been given the chance to make a feature-length film? For example, there’s a moment when Dunye, who plays herself, is filming outside an abandoned building when she’s approached by the police. She’s confronted by them because they assume that her equipment is stolen and she is a drug addict. Furthermore, they harass her because she “looks like a boy”.

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The sequence clearly resonates with the present moment regarding many of the issues surrounding police brutality. Yet after being confronted by the police, the film continues merrily on its way without addressing the fallout that often accompanies such incidents. The sequence alone could have warranted its own film, and perhaps its relative unimportance speaks to Dunye’s middle-class background where the police might target you, but the encounter is less likely to lead to deadly consequences.

The Watermelon Woman’s strengths revolve around two core themes: the history of African-American actresses in Hollywood and lesbian sexuality. In regards to the first issue, the film in pseudo-documentary form chronicles Dunye’s quest to discover the identity of the beloved black actress, only credited with the name “the watermelon woman,” in one of her favorite ’30s-era films Plantation Memories. As the film progresses, we learn that her name was Fae Richards. She was both a singer and actress who desperately sought after a Hollywood career, but the limiting roles offered to black actresses essentially quashed such dreams. She was also a lesbian and had a relationship with a white female director, who most likely was slumming with and using Fae.

The film stresses the ways in which black actresses have been marginalized in Hollywood history. Yet it also recognizes that despite the limited roles black actresses were confronted with, people like Fae Richards and Hattie McDaniel seized upon them with all their being to forge them into something slightly more humane, slightly more engaging than the white writers and directors most likely envisioned. A touching moment occurs when Dunye films herself before a television set re-enacting one of her favorite scenes from Plantation Memories. She wears a kerchief on her head as Fae Richards does in the film while lip-synching her lines. The past directly connects to the present as Fae Richards ability to transcend her limited roles inspire Dunye to do the same as a black lesbian director in the still predominantly white world of commercial filmmaking.

The fact that we learn by film’s end that the entire history of Fae Richards has been concocted by Dunye punctuates the difficulty of discovering the histories of black actresses from classical Hollywood cinema. Dunye quotes herself during the ending credits: “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” Indeed. The attention to detail that both Dunye and photographer Zoe Leonard lavish upon their fabricated black-and-white film sequences and photographs show their deep care and affection for this still relatively undiscovered history. One of the people Dunye interviews who knew Richards states the modus operandi of the film: people like Richards “paved the way for kids like you making movies.”

Yet Dunye’s discovery of Richards’ background resonates with her own as she engages in her own tryst with a white lesbian named Diana (Guinevere Turner) and negotiates the racial politics that undergird it. Her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) warns Dunye that Diana is nothing more than “a white girl who wants to be black.” Although we initially want to discount this observation as sheer jealousy on Tamara’ part, it gets validated when Diana lists the number of black boyfriends she had in the past like trophies. Dunye frustratingly gets up from the bed they are sharing when she hears this and comments, “You are a mess.”

Perhaps more interestingly is the way in which the film negotiates explicitly representing sex between the two women without playing into heterosexual male fantasies and fetishes regarding lesbianism. This concern with explicit sexual representation of gay, lesbian, and bi couples ran like a vein through all of New Queer Cinema at the time. People like Gregg Araki pushed it to the forefront of many of his films as if overcompensating for the overwhelming absence of any normalized sense of gay male sexuality being on commercial screens.

Lesbian directors had to confront a whole host of different issues regarding sexuality. All wanted to avoid the extreme position of Laura Mulvey who made films like Amy (1979), which refused to offer any visualization of a woman on the screen since it was considered inherently objectifying. Although we hear Amy speak about her work as an aviatrix in voice-over, we never once see her on the screen. Yet, at the same time, they didn’t want to film lesbian sex scenes that could be appropriated by a heterosexual male gaze. How, in other words, could a film like The Watermelon Woman establish a lesbian, black female gaze — something that had not been represented on the screen ever before?

The sex scene between Dunye and Tamara is telling. The camera constantly jostles about during their first sexual encounter. Although we get brief shots of breasts and nipples being licked and played with, they are shuffled with other more indecipherable images of limbs intertwined and bodies pressed against one another. The sequence wants to represent an honest portrayal of lesbian sexuality without giving enough screen time for capture from a heterosexual male gaze. It is a skirmish of images that wants to ultimately tally a victory in the corner for a newly emergent lesbian gaze.

Even before this sexual encounter, Dunye deftly teases the audience by having Dunye and Tamara kiss and lower themselves out of the frame. A sequence from Plantation Memories plays in the background on the television. This suggestive gesture is a clear nod to classical Hollywood cinema where the rules of censorship forced sexual scenes to be implied mostly off-screen. Yet it also suggests how commercial cinema largely continues to restrict non-heterosexual sexuality from its frame unless it is pathologized or contained in a heterosexual framework. The film teases the viewer. Finally, a film is about to present lesbian sex from a black lesbian gaze. Yet we see nothing. Until a dramatic pause elapses, and we enter the bed with both women.

The film endearingly can barely contain its libidinal excitement. For example, Tamara and Dunye run a professional videography service that films weddings and other special events. While filming a musical performance, Tamara cannot resist panning her camera over the audience, cruising and commenting upon the buffet of women she visually caresses. Tamara constantly attempts to set up Cheryl with her friends. She is the film’s sexual id whereas Cheryl is more of its superego.

Yet even Dunye cannot help fall for the allure of possessing the filmic gaze. Periodically throughout the film she films her and Tamara dancing before the skyline of Philadelphia. The sequences serve no narrative purpose other than relating the pure pleasure of filming and being on screen. The women are both subject and object of the gaze, a particularly unique experience for black lesbian filmmakers who have systematically been denied access to filmmaking. The film crams as much pleasure into it as is possible as if attempting to make up for lost time.

Of course, this is not Dunye’s last film. Accompanying this 20th-anniversary release of The Watermelon Woman is her most recent film Black is Blue (2014), which is another pseudo-documentary, which addresses a woman transitioning into becoming a man. Much like The Watermelon Woman, we don’t realize that it’s not a documentary until the credit sequence where the people we have just watched reflect upon their acting choices. To further complicate matters, the film reveals how some transgender people play cisgender characters, therefore, complicating our gender-biased assumptions and drawing to the forefront the performativity of gender that people like Judith Butler have long emphasized.

Once again, Dunye’s troubling of the line between fiction and documentary stretches back to New Queer Cinema where directors like Todd Haynes similarly queered genres like horror and documentary in a film like Poison (1991). The Velvet Goldmine (1998) wholesale retrofits Citizen Kane into a glam rock tale that loosely chronicles the relationship between David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Matter of fact, Dunye and Haynes share very similar sensibilities in their love of classic cinema and their desire to rewrite it into more LGBTQ-friendly directions.

The Watermelon Woman is a unique film in that it still sadly remains one of the few written and directed by a black lesbian. On its own terms, it’s worth watching to see how it negotiates and reclaims Hollywood’s racist past as well as it establishes what a black lesbian gaze might look like. Yet, its real power is how relates to a constellation of films that were deemed New Queer Cinema at the time to see how they collectively were pushing cinematic form in new directions and attempting to forge explicit LGBTQ sexual content in ways where straight audiences were at best a secondary concern. It was this collective pressure and pleasure by New Queer Cinema directors to seize commercial screens that made the movement so stunning.

Although some directors from this moment continue to thrive, it remains troubling that the only films that Hollywood recognizes for awards are ones directed by straight males where non-heterosexual sexual material is safely corralled off screen.

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