(Re)Writing Black Lesbian History through The Watermelon Woman

watermelon womanOften referred to as the “lesbian version” of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), and winner of Best Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival, Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman is an unusual and revolutionary mock-documentary. Created on a relatively low budget of $300,000, the film is acclaimed as being the first ever feature film by a black lesbian filmmaker. Frequently narrated by Cheryl, who acts as the main character, the film presents her personal life as she embarks on a journey to learn everything she can about a black woman called Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, who starred in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 1940’s. At the beginning of film, Cheryl talks directly to the camera, and outlines the basis for her documentary project:

“Hi, I’m Cheryl, and I’m a filmmaker. I’m not really a filmmaker, but I have a videotaping business with my friend Tamara, and I work at a video store… so I’m working on being a filmmaker. The problem is, I don’t know what I want to make a film on.  I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told…”

While the film brings forth several overlapping themes, including interracial relationships, racial subjectivity, and identity politics, I would argue that Dunye’s main purpose in creating her film was to both deconstruct and reconstruct images of a historically invisible figure—the black lesbian. Black Feminists in “The Combahee River Collective Statement” declare, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” I would claim that these overlapping oppressions are also what led to the invisibility of the black lesbian figure, both historically and in the present.

Cheryl first brings visibility to the black lesbian simply by acting as the main character in the film. She provides further visibility through the inclusion of her best friend, Tamara, as well as Tamara’s girlfriend. Cheryl’s friendship with Tamara displays varying lesbian identity politics as Tamara often chastises Cheryl for dating a white lesbian, claiming Cheryl is not an “Authentic Black Lesbian” or “True Sister”. In addition to these representations in the film, Cheryl works to create more historic images of the black lesbian through her search to uncover as much as she can about Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards. At the conclusion of the film, Cheryl reflects upon what remembering this actress means to her in a monologue:

“It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility. It means history. And most important, what I understand, is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, ‘I am a black lesbian filmmaker,’ who’s just beginning, but I’m gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do. Anyway… what you’ve all been waiting for—the biography of Fae Richards, Faith Richardson.”

The film ends with Fae’s biography, a compilation of images and short film scenes overlapped with Cheryl’s voice-over. At the end of the biography and during the credits, Dunye explicitly declares the fictional status of the film stating, “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.”

Dunye’s creation of a fictional black lesbian from the 1930’s further emphasizes the invisibility of the black lesbian. More discomforting, viewers realize that what she said in her previous monologue was somewhat of an illusion. As Laura Sullivan states in “CHASING FAE: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility”,  “Dunye had to make up a history of a black lesbian actress; in other words, she had to create her own hope, inspiration and possibility through the creation of a history that was not, but could have been, in some ways should have been, there.”

Through her film, Dunye attempts to (re)write a black lesbian history that was previously non-existent. With the help of New York City based photographer, Zoe Leonard, numerous images of this fictional black lesbian character were created. Made up of 78 images, the collection was later exhibited in galleries, and a book of the images was created as well.Fae Richardson

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