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Black to the Future

In The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye creates her own history

Labels, when they're accurate, can help alert a niche audience to films so close to their lives they're sure to want to see them, almost regardless of quality. (I, for one, would certainly rush to see even the worst conceivable movies about film critics -- if any, in fact, existed.) But labels can have the unfortunate side effect of alienating potential viewers not intimately connected to the subject matter.

Maybe the reason I so enjoyed The Watermelon Woman is that the writer/director/star and I are just alike -- except, of course, she's a woman ... and black ... and a lesbian. But hell, we're both from Philadelphia (where the film is set), and no naysayer is going to take that away from us. Harrumph!

The point is that while no one would deny (or want to deny) that The Watermelon Woman is both by and about a gay black woman from Philadelphia, its appeal is a good deal broader than that highly circumscribed group. As the ad used to say, you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread.

Writer/director Cheryl Dunye plays an apparently autobiographical character named Cheryl -- a video clerk, former film student and occasional videomaker -- who becomes obsessed with learning about an obscure black actress she spots one night in a piece of '30s hokum titled Plan-tation Memories. Cheryl senses the performer's attempts to bring depth and dignity to a stereotypical "mammy" role; her interest is further piqued by the film's credits, which deny the actress any real off-screen identity, referring to her (for reasons obscure but undeniably racist) as "The Watermelon Woman."

Working with meager resources and the help of friends and relatives, Cheryl discovers that the Watermelon Woman was actually Fae Richards, an ambitious singer who used to perform at Philly clubs. And, more to her delight, she finds that Fae was a lesbian, whose career was personally and professionally intertwined with that of "legendary" female director Martha Page. (In the film's faux archival stills, Page is made to look something like Dorothy Arzner, a lesbian who was the only woman director working for major studios in the early sound era.)

As Cheryl tries to assemble a video documentary on Richards, her fixation on the project begins to take a toll on her private life, which in many ways seems to parallel that of her subject. As her quest increasingly occupies her life, she becomes less and less compatible with her best friend, Tamara (Valarie Walker), as if the act of reclaiming the historical past is redefining the personal past. Like Richards, she has a stormy affair with a white woman named Diana (Guinevere Tur-ner, from Go Fish).

Despite the danger of reductionist comparisons, it's not entirely unfair to describe The Watermelon Woman as Go Fish meets She's Gotta Have It. It's not simply a question of the milieu and subject matter; rather, Dunye shares with those films' directors the cleverness to turn her limited budget and perceived "niche" market prospects into advantages. She has combined solid low-budget craftsmanship with a script smart enough to represent thoughtful, if carefully modest, goals.

But the formal model here is more appropriately James McBride's David Holzman's Diary, which Dunye acknowledges as an influence. Yet The Watermelon Woman doesn't cleave strictly to the pseudo-documentary format: Unlike McBride's movie or This Is Spinal Tap, what we see doesn't pretend to be the film Cheryl the character is herself making. (Cheryl's documentary wouldn't be likely to include her torrid sex scene with Diana, for instance.) It mingles parts of the documentary with "real" scenes from Cheryl's quest. Among Dunye's wise moves was the decision to shoot everything, even the "video" footage, on 16 mm film, which provides a far more pleasing visual texture. The fake scenes from Richards's old movies are convincingly done; one of these "films," Mr. Owen Meets His Match, sounds so enticing it's almost too cruel a tease.

Unlike many of the ultra-low-budget indies that fly in and out of local theaters on a weekly basis, The Watermelon Woman shows a firm grasp of the values that impart quality to films -- a well-worked-out script, believable performances (even by some amateurs), an ear for the way people actually speak. (Camille Paglia shows up, playing herself with precisely the obnoxiousness she brings to the same role in the "real" world.) The only real technical or judgmental lapse is Dunye's habit of fading out of a scene in the middle of a line, sometimes just when things are getting interesting.

There's one other nice thing to say about Dunye's film. While I hate to embrace external controversy for its own sake, The Watermelon Woman was produced partly through an NEA grant -- thus creating a predictable legislative uproar. But on general principle I can't help giving extra points to any work that irritates the hell out of the Reverend Donald Wildmon and Senator Jesse Helms.

The Watermelon Woman.
Directed by Cheryl Dunye. With Dunye, Guinevere Turner, Valarie Walker, Toshi Reagan and Brian Freeman.

Not rated.
90 minutes.
Shows at the Museum of Fine Arts Friday, May 30, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 31, at 1 p.m.

 
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