THE WATERMELON WOMAN at Twenty
Queer-film pioneer Cheryl Dunye talks about the possibility of ‘peak blackness,’ the atmosphere of the election, and the art of hanging around long enough.
Dunye was the one. In 1996, she wrote, directed, and starred in The Watermelon Woman, a semi-autobiographical portrait of a black lesbian who struggles to get her fledgling career in filmmaking off the ground. Since the film’s historic theatrical release—making it the first African-American lesbian feature to be released in this country—it’s been a defining staple in LGBTQ cinema. When Fandor published its list of “The Essential LGBTQ” titles, filmmaker Jenni Olson wrote of The Watermelon Woman, “Like Tongues Untied, the film had the distinction of being debated in Congress when right-wing conservatives objected to the fact that it had received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.” Dunye’s stunning debut has lived on long enough to experience a remastered restoration for its twentieth anniversary.
When we spoke over the phone on election day, Dunye was driving to San Francisco State University, where she’s an assistant professor in their burgeoning cinema department. We talked about the ground she broke with The Watermelon Woman, the state of contemporary black cinema, and being a “survivor” of this strange, whirlwind of an industry.
Sam Fragoso: You’re based in the Bay, but you used to live in Los Angeles.
Cheryl Dunye: From after The Watermelon Woman was made until 2004. Then I moved to Amsterdam, and then I came back in 2007 and lived there until four years ago. Kids, houses in Pasadena, blah blah, you know that stuff. Lived adult life. Did my little Hollywood thing.
Fragoso: How was that?
Dunye: It was good, you know, for a moment. I think it ultimately wasn’t in my cards. Assessing it from a distance, twenty years, ten years, I feel and see the results of Hollywood on the queer filmmaking scene, and why everybody makes their hits and moves on. Queer cinema is sort of at its lowest, in a way, because people keep using it as a mechanism to move through. Maybe that’s what queer cinema is, but there’s not many people who stick around and make that work. I feel like The Watermelon Woman, and definitely within lesbian women or queer women of color or any of that sort of representation, nobody sticks around to make that work and make that cinema.
Fragoso: Are you surprised Watermelon Woman has ascended over the years?
Dunye: I’m not surprised. A lot went into it, it was a first film, it was the first of its kind, all those things, but I think formulaically what I was trying to do with stuff and the layers that I was doing as an artist—filmmaker, cinema-person—really worked well. I really do think that filmmaking is a space not only to tell strong stories with good characters, but also trying to do something. The Watermelon Woman was definitely the first one that laid that groundwork for me in storytelling.
Fragoso: You said that a part of queer cinema feels like a mechanism. At the time, in '95, '96, did you feel any of that?
Dunye: It was a natural outpouring, definitely. It was the birth of New Queer Cinema, or the labeling of it, with many of my peers from my years in New York—Tom Kalin, Christine Vachon. I worked with Good Machine on a short, had been in New York at that time, so it was in the air to sort of be creative this way. I had done one Whitney Biennial, and I had curated a show at the New Museum called Bad Girls. It was in the creative air for the cultural wars to have a filmmaker like me—you know, Kara Walker, stuff like that—so this was natural in its creation. For it to sustain itself for so long, I’m amazed. Cinema-wise in visibility with black, queer women filmmakers, there had been others after The Watermelon Woman, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the spotlight was put on Dee Rees, again, as somebody making this type of work. That’s a long time. Then for it just to be Dee and I out there with that sort of visibility... I’m not saying there aren’t other makers, there definitely at least has been a film a year, or more sometimes... but definitely getting that attention. And what’s there now? There’s the magical negro sort of work that is out there, but nothing that’s really trying to tell a story.
Fragoso: Would you describe yourself a skeptical filmmaker?
Dunye: I’m not. I’m seasoned, like jerky. A little tough, but tasty. I do feel like fine wine at its time, and have my place in the filmmaking world, my comeuppance—because it’s a whole new world out there, and I’m not necessarily going to challenge it, but I’m just going to continue to do what I do, because it seems to be working quite fine. Like episodic. I’m not a big episodic person. I have some strong opinions about it. Making something that is binge-able is not, to me, completely impactful. I’m not saying that I don’t want to do episodic, but all the stuff that I binge-watch, I sort of can’t hold onto some of it, you know what I’m saying? Some people do. Maybe I’m just not of that generation, but I definitely do feel like I’m still one who wants to go into that dark room and feel that magic.
Fragoso: Earlier it sounded like, with the “magical negro sort of work,” you were specifically targeting cinema made by men and women of color.
Dunye: Not necessarily. I’m actually talking about queers, more so. Think of anybody who made significant work and what they’re doing now. I was just with Tom Kalin, who is actually still making films that he likes. We just did a master class in Porto, Portugal, north of Lisbon, at their festival. It was a wonderful conversation. We both have a similar but different lens on what happened in between and where everybody is and what people are doing. How the birth of this came from, ultimately, for both of us, an output of our activism.
Also, with black communities in particular, like gay communities and Marlon Riggs, the example has a huge impact. One of the questions I got recently, with the restoration, one woman asked, 'So, can you talk to me about your foreshadowing twenty years ago in the scene where Cheryl gets arrested on the street by the cops, thinking that she was a boy, and all that harassment? That’s such a foreshadowing of what’s happening now. Talk about that.' Like, what do you really want me to say? It’s no foreshadowing, it’s just social media’s put your lens on it and now you’re seeing it. That was happening.
Fragoso: It was happening in ’96.
Dunye: It was happening in ’76, ’66. So that’s what I’m talking about. My work was really coming out of intersectionality. I think people are living it now, being aware of it now. This election, the color leaving and a woman coming in, and what that brought up. It’s bringing up stuff for a lot of different people. There’s an awareness, people are able to have a different kind of awareness, in particular with Millennials. My kids are Z. Their eyes opened in 2008 or so, after that financial crisis, they had a whole different outlook on the internet. Everything is sped up and everything looks different. Everything is memed, so it’s really interesting to see this film have such an impact on that generation.
Fragoso: Do you see your influence on something like Moonlight?
Dunye: I’m trying to think, because Barry [Jenkins] and I taught a class way back in 2010. Barry and I bonded. There was a kindredness around our approach to storytelling. Maybe it’s time for the storytellers like Barry and I to have a moment. My new feature that I’m shooting in the spring, Black is Blue, based on the short, has already been in this world of development around hearing about Moonlight too. I just think blackness has changed rather quickly, especially in the world right now. Earlier this year it was Nate Parker as the most phenomenal thing, and now it’s Barry and Moonlight. I just think that we want something different out of black storytelling. I was there, so was Dee, and other people’s storytelling, but I think we paved the way. That’s the simple way to say it. We paved the way for it, you know.
Fragoso: Given that you’ve seen the in and outs of this industry, do you buy the idea that we’re living in a world of 'peak blackness' in both cinema and television right now?
Dunye: I don’t know if I can say that, per say. There’s a lot of media being made—like Luke Cage. There’s stuff creeping in. Are people really doing something radically different? No. Are they taking chances and being able to do things? You know, Ava Duvernay and Queen Sugar, and being able to have the outlet for that that brings a viewership and an audience. It’s amazing. There’s also a lot to offer in the stupid reality-world shit, you know? To me, I feel like there’s too much content. There’s so much content that’s not even stuff on the web. So no wonder the darkroom is such a sacred, weird place. If you’re not a big-box-office million-dollar, billion-dollar film, Dr. Strange or something like that, you’re just invisible. There’s a boutique market. Films like Tangerine and other ones that keep their budget down. God bless Moonlight for bringing that attention, but it’s definitely a tricky world to be making work in. When we talk about diversity and the lack of, step outside of America and you’ll feel a whole different story about queerness. I only can speak from my own space as a person of color, who’s queer. A QPOC making work and navigating it.
I also became a member of the Academy this year—a big, significant honor for me. But it’s so funny: I said to Cameron Bailey—who many years ago got the position as the head of the Toronto Film Festival—'Congratulations!' And he said, 'Thank you.' I said, 'How does it feel?' He said, 'You know what, Cheryl? If you hang around long enough, they’ll give you the keys.' It sort of feels like that in a way. Survivor, I hung around long enough. I think that’s a wive’s-tale expression too, and maybe a person-of-color thing too. But yeah, I’ve been around long enough. I haven’t left. I’m still singing the same song. It’s a significant way to speak: Writers get to write, animators get to animate, and episodic people get to episodic, and filmmakers have to make their films. I’m so blessed to have been able to make, what, fifteen films or whatever the number is at this point in my life.
Fragoso: When you were making Watermelon Woman, you talk about treading in new territory. Did you feel any of that pressure of 'Oh, I’m changing something. I’m really adding something new to the annals of cinema.'
Dunye: Not really, no. It was definitely challenging. Writing the script was something that I did not get completely in my practice at Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts. Martha Rosler was a wonderful inspiration for many of these ideas about making video art, but it definitely was not about how to write the script. I had to really go through a big learning curve, watch a lot of films, read a lot of books. There was not the internet. It’s so funny to think about—all this stuff happened before there was an internet. I did do this research to make this film, it wasn’t fake. I did try to find somebody, but I didn’t find anybody. I did look in queer cinema, and there were no people of color at all. I was like, 'Come on, just one!' Then I went to black cinema and there was no mention of homosexuality at all, my god. The Watermelon Woman is my academic response to wanting something to be there.
Fragoso: At the very least, I’m glad you have the keys now.
Dunye: Yeah, and I’m passing them on.
A new restoration of The Watermelon Woman opens at the Metrograph in New York tonight.