The Watermelon Woman
The wry, incisive debut feature by Cheryl Dunye gave cinema something bracingly new and groundbreaking: a vibrant representation of Black lesbian identity by a Black lesbian filmmaker. Dunye stars as Cheryl, a video-store clerk and aspiring director whose interest in forgotten Black actresses leads her to investigate an obscure 1930s performer known as the Watermelon Woman, whose story proves to have surprising resonances with Cheryl’s own life as she navigates a new relationship with a white girlfriend (Guinevere Turner). Balancing breezy romantic comedy with a serious inquiry into the history of Black and queer women in Hollywood, The Watermelon Woman slyly rewrites long-standing constructions of race and sexuality on-screen, introducing an important voice in American cinema.
The Criterion Collection presents Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode is sourced from a new 2K restoration from a 16mm original A/B negatives scan.
Without spoiling any plot points or reveals, the film can be described as a hybrid documentary/narrative feature, with the documentary portions shot on video and the narrative pieces on 16mm. It then appears the video footage was transferred to 16mm to be edited with the rest of the material. Because of that, the video footage only looks as good as it did when it was initially transferred over in the mid-90s, with no additional alterations or “improvements” outside of color correction (maybe). This is perfectly fine and to be expected; it just needs to be noted for anyone wishing something pristine.
That said, the film portions are as close to “pristine” as possible. Impressively, the film portions look like they could have been filmed recently, the restoration work cleaning up just about every spec, hair, and scratch, and next-to-nothing remains behind. The scan has captured every fine detail possible, including the heavier film grain, and the end digital encode handles it incredibly well. Range is relatively wide, with gradations in the shadows looking excellent, and there is a beautiful vibrancy in the colors that also manages to come through during the video portions.
Despite its low budget and heavy use of video, the presentation looks incredible. The restoration work has cleaned things up spectacularly, while a solid digital presentation aids it further.
Though the soundtrack is, in actuality, 5.1 DTS-HD MA, it’s mixed to replicate the film’s original 3.0 surround presentation. Considering its indie roots, I wasn’t expecting much, but it is a solid audio presentation. It’s front-heavy, with dialogue focused squarely on those front speakers, but the music is mixed nicely to the rears, which work in unison. Though there is a bit of a hollowness at times, I still found that the dialogue and music sound sharp and crisp with adequate range. There’s also no damage to speak of.
Criterion has put together an impressive set of features for this edition, all ultimately working together to showcase Dunye’s development as a filmmaker, allowing one to see step-by-step how she developed her voice and style, all merging into her first feature film. This is all most evident through the inclusion of her early shorts: Janine (1990, 9 minutes), She Don’t Fade (1991, 24 minutes), Vanilla Sex (1992, 4 minutes), The Potluck and the Passion (1993, 22 minutes), An Untitled Portrait (1993, 3 minutes), and Greetings from Africa (1994, 9 minutes).
Half of them can probably be labeled as straight “documentaries,” though incredibly personal ones that reflect her grappling with her identity as a gay, Black woman. Janine features Dunye talking about her childhood friend Janine and how that relationship with her led to key realizations about herself, which included how Janine, a White girl, perceived her. Vanilla Sex looks at how various terms—like “vanilla sex” —can have different meanings depending on the context of its use concerning race or sexual preference. An Untitled Portrait, on the other hand, feels more biographical as it examines her relationship with her brother (using what I think is home video footage mixed with footage from movies) and how, despite going their own ways and drifting apart later, “blood is thicker than water.”
Potluck and She Don’t Fade are where you see that merging of documentary and fictional narrative, allowing Dunye to explore the themes that interest her while also dissecting how they’re represented. These two focus on interracial lesbian relationships and the frustrations that can come with them from Dunye’s perspective. They both work as combination narratives and making-ofs, hinting at a fictional narrative cut with what could be classified as behind-the-scenes material and cast interviews. Potluck is probably the better of the two (She Don’t Fade is still more of a documentary in nature), with its story set around a potluck thrown by a group of friends. The primary focus is on one of the friends, a White woman, who brings along her girlfriend, a Black woman. If I recall, they had only been dating for a short while, but there were already slowly building frustrations, which all come to a head on this particular night. This narrative is mixed with the actors talking about their characters and what is going on between them, and though that breaks one of the rules of filmmaking by “explaining instead of showing,” also breaking the action in turn, it ends up allowing the actors to also work through the material from a personal perspective instead of through their characters.
It's rough, but it’s just another step in Dunye building her style, which comes out full force in Greetings from Africa. This one is purely more of a fictional narrative. However, it still features those documentary elements through first-person discussions and voice-over narration (I also have no doubt the storyline is based on Dunye’s own experience). This one features Dunye—playing herself or a version of herself, as in The Watermelon Woman—working through her fascination and slight obsession with another woman, who is White. After meeting at a party, the two quickly become friends, though Dunye wonders if there may be more there as she works through their encounters. Stylistically, the film is far more ambitious than her previous ones, with Dunye staging and framing some fantastic shots (with a couple that come off fantastical), and her sense of humor is better on display. And that’s not to say her previous films don’t display that humor. It’s there in a reserved manner due to how she approaches her topics, but she lets loose with this one as her frustrations surface. It’s not just through dialogue, like a deadpan delivery of “very mixed messages.” Dunye also translates the humor visually, including a great, awkward shot following a realization about the object of her affection. Her other films are interesting, but everything hinted at before comes together beautifully and holistically with this one.
Criterion also includes a handful of interviews featuring the director, including a 16-minute one filmed for the Criterion Channel in 2022 (alongside a 3-minute excerpt where she talks about the controversy from the time around funding from the National Endowment for the Arts) and a new one featuring her talking with filmmaker Martine Syms, running 19 minutes. Both interviews cover the film and her other work, with Dunye adding how she wanted to get into filmmaking because she didn’t feel she was properly represented. Her conversation with Syms ends up exploring that topic a little more in-depth. This leads naturally to the origins of The Watermelon Woman, which came about following Dunye’s research on Black entertainers from early Hollywood and being disappointed in how she couldn’t find anything “recorded” that identified any performers being homosexual.
There are also discussions around the archive presented in the film, which then nicely segues things into the next feature, an interview between filmmakers and scholars Alexandra Juhasz and Thomas Allen Harris. Juhasz did help with the film, but the focus of the discussion is primarily on the importance of archiving and how it is represented in the movie. There’s also discussion about the basis of some of the figures in the film, like how the director that is brought up is based (at least in part) on Dorothy Arzner. It proves to be an engaging 24-minute discussion.
The included insert then features a new essay by Cassie da Costa, who gets into the film’s significance and impact while also touching on its primary themes and interesting production.
Another on-disc academic analysis or a commentary by the filmmaker would have been beneficial. Still, as it is, it’s a nicely well-rounded set of features that show Dunye’s path as a filmmaker.
A superb special edition that delivers a beautiful new presentation for the film alongside a thorough set of features that chronicle Dunye’s path as a filmmaker.