A bigoted, white salesman (played by stand-up comedian Godfrey Cambridge) wakes up one morning to find he has become black. Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Melvin Van Peebles’ next film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Watermelon Man has never felt more relevant than it does today.
Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man makes its worldwide Blu-ray debut courtesy of Indcator, presented on a single-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and encoded at 1080p/24hz.
Indicator is using an older master supplied to them by Sony, and I assume it’s the same one used for their original DVD edition. It ultimately looks fine but leaves one wanting. Detail is decent enough and I can’t say the image ever looks soft, but at the same time I can’t say it ever looks as crisp as it probably could. I suspect the source that was scanned was an interpositive and the image can have a dupier look at times. Grain is there but has possibly been managed to a small degree, and this hinders a film-like look. Impressively, damage is limited to just the occasional bit of dirt, and I never noticed much else (I recall the DVD having more damage present, so I suspect Indicator has done further work). And colours look decent, though have that drab kind of Eastman Color look in the end. Blacks are okay but some dark scenes lack shadow detail.
Despite some disappointments the picture is definitely still an upgrade over the DVD, but it’s a shame Sony hasn’t seen fit to give the film an all-new restoration. I think Indicator is presenting the film as well as they can, and the limitations are more in the master they were supplied.
The film is presented with a lossless PCM 2.0 mono track. Fidelity is lacking and there is a general flatness to it, but it’s serviceable. The track is clean, dialogue is clear, and the music does offer some moments where range stretches things out a bit.
Sadly there are only a couple of features on here. Indicator reuses a 5-minute introduction by Van Peebles that appears on the Sony DVD, though it has been re-edited here to be a video feature (it was presented under an alternate audio track on the DVD where it played over the film’s opening). It’s unfortunately brief (and has been done over the phone), but the director explains how he came to do the film, how he talked the studio into casting a black actor in the role (Jack Lemmon was interested, meaning he would have done most of the film in black-face) and then how the success of the film led to a 3-picture deal with Columbia (who then pulled it after he released Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which I assume they took offense to). It’s unfortunately brief but I’m going to assume that this short bit was all he was up to doing, so at least it was something.
To make up for the lack of the director’s pasticipation Indicator digs up another Guardian interview (they’ve included a number of these over their releases), this time with Van Peebles, which was recorded in 1996 and runs around 71-minutes. It is presented as an alternate audio track that plays over the film, with the audio returning to the film’s own soundtrack after it has finished. The audio includes portions before a screening of the film and then the session afterwards. Hosted by Darcus Howe, the discussion navigates through his career, from how he got into filmmaking (which is an incredibly unusual route) to how he came to direct Watermelon Man, and then cover other topics, such as the success of Sweetback, the key difference between a revolutionary film and a Blaxploitation film, and talk a bit about black filmmakers of the day, including Spike Lee and John Singleton. He tells some great stories over the interview portion (which was only supposed to take 15-minutes but goes on for 40), and shares such things as how he could manipulate a prospective investor’s own racism to his advantage. There is a Q&A session, and the questions are hard to hear (the audio, as an opening title card points out, is in rough shape), but it leads into some interesting topics and is worth a listening (I also appreciate this playing over the film rather than just over a photo).
Indicator also includes a large image gallery showcasing production photos, behind-the-scenes photos, posters, and so on. Included in these are photos of the application of the white-face make-up on star Godfrey Cambridge. Indicator also includes one of their lengthy booklets, opening with an essay by Sergio Mims, covering the film while also giving some context to the time period. This is followed by a reprint of an article by Timeri Muari for The Guardian in 1970 covering Van Peebles and the film’s release also pops up, and then a profile on the director and other black filmmakers written the same year by Norman Goldstein for The Washington Post. There is then a reprint of an interview with Van Peebles conducted by Andrew J Rausch, with the director talking a bit more about his first full-length film, The Story of a Three-Day Puss. Indicator then closes off the booklet (as usual) with excerpts from three reviews, these ones written by Howard Thompson, Gary Arnold, and then an unnamed writer for the Monthly Film Bulletin.
The booklet has some great material in it but it’s shame more couldn’t be gathered on disc. At the very least, the Guardian interview is a bit of a blast.
The film deserves more (including a new restoration and more supplementary material) but as it is it’s still an adequate release, and an improvement over the Sony DVD.