Two black women lean against a retail counter and talk about girls. It’s the 90s, so they are wearing overalls, enormous silk shirts, chokers and chunky earrings. Both have neatly shaved heads. Tamara wants Cheryl to go out with her friend Yvette, and Cheryl demurs—she finds Yvette uptight. Soon their boss emerges from the back of the store, and tells them to get back to work.
This is the opening of Cheryl Dunye’s ambitious first film, 1996’s The Watermelon Woman, which has recently been remastered for the 20th anniversary of its U.S. release. The movie follows Cheryl, played by Dunye, as she attempts to make a documentary about Faye Richards, better known as the Watermelon Woman: a gay, black 1930s actress whose roles as mammies and housemaids did not do justice to her elusive and complex life. In the process, Cheryl works her day job at a video rental store, begins a relationship with a white woman, and learns more about black women’s history—in film, in the gay community, and in her native Philadelphia—than she ever anticipated.
Dunye made The Watermelon Woman on a shoestring budget of $300,000—about one tenth of which came from an NEA grant. The film received limited attention when it was originally released in the U.S., but that didn’t stop it from generating controversy when Michigan Republican Pieter Hoekstra cited it as inappropriate use of government funds. He tried unsuccessfully to get his colleagues in Congress to deduct Dunye’s $31,500 grant from the NEA budget, citing NEA funding for a series of gay and lesbian films that “most Americans would find offensive” and referring to The Watermelon Woman specifically as “patently offensive and possibly pornographic.” He seems to have objected to the film’s sex scene, an oblique, 20-second affair between Cheryl and her white love interest, Diana, that looks adorably tame by today’s standards. You can see the outline of Dunye’s stomach and part of a nipple; the whole thing is set to a soundtrack that sounds like Melissa Etheridge but isn’t.
This kind of reaction might exemplify why The Watermelon Woman is such a unique film. Black lesbians exist at the crossroads of three of America’s most persistent iniquities: they are black, and women, and gay. Dunye’s film is a monument to her own love of black film history, but it is also a look into the ways that we uncover the histories of marginalized people, people who were unable, because of access or because of taboo, to document themselves.
Cheryl first sees the Watermelon Woman as a beguiling actress in a 1930s blaxploitation film called Plantation Memories. She’s entranced by the woman’s performance, but can’t find her name: She is credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Cheryl eventually uncovers more of her films, most of them about race—she plays a number of mammies, housemaids, and other sour stereotypes, but also finds some more complex roles as dancers and gangsters. In one movie, she appears as the bereaved, darker-skinned sister of a light skinned woman who has chosen to live as white. “Why can’t I choose to live in their world?” the sister cries, and Richardson slaps her, loosening a puff of white powdered makeup from her face.
Cheryl does her research in secret, ordering the old videos under customers’ names at the store so that she can get them for free. Through interviews, archival work, and lots of time watching early black cinema, she eventually discovers that the Watermelon Woman was named Faith Richardson—Faye Richards to Hollywood—and that she’d begun her career as a performer in Philadelphia’s gay clubs, singing dressed in a top hat and white tuxedo. “She used to sing for all us stone butches,” a community elder tells her, and Cheryl is shocked.
Cheryl is delighted to learn that Richardson was a lesbian (“The Watermelon Woman was part of the family!”), but the story becomes more complicated the more that Richardson’s life starts to resemble her own. As Cheryl falls into a relationship with Diana, a well-meaning but politically oblivious white woman, she discovers that Richardson was lovers with Martha Page, the white lesbian director who made her race films. It becomes clear that both Martha and Diana exhibit the benign racism of white liberals, the kind whose ostentatious gestures of compassion toward black people are more about moral vanity than real respect. Cheryl’s black friends openly wonder if Diana “likes chocolate;” they notice that she lives in a fancy apartment but only works as a volunteer, at a charity that tutors black children. Meanwhile, Cheryl dives deeper into Martha Page’s oeuvre, and discovers that while the white director made countless films about the injustice of racism, she would only cast the Watermelon Woman, her most talented actress, in servant roles. Eventually Cheryl finds Richardson’s living ex-partner, the black woman who lived with her for decades after her separation from Martha, who is outraged to find that Cheryl’s documentary puts Martha at the center of Richardson’s life. “If you’re really the family,” she tells Cheryl, “you need to understand that we only have each other.” The message is that black lesbianism is something in need of defense, something uniquely imperiled and also uniquely precious.
The Watermelon Woman premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996, and then went on to play at a slew of gay and lesbian film festivals worldwide. It gained something of a cult status in lesbian circles: Aside from being the first feature film ever directed by a black lesbian, The Watermelon Woman contained cameos from many lesbian and feminist luminaries of the 90s. The ACT UP activist Sarah Schulman plays a flustered archivist at C.L.I.T. (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), the patchouli-scented women’s library that Dunye based on New York’s Lesbian Herstory Archives. Zoe Leonard, the artist behind “I Want a Dyke for President,” produced the faux-1930s photos and film reels that make up the evidence of the Watermelon Woman’s life. Even Camille Paglia makes an appearance, giving an interview as a parody version of herself as the narcissistic white film theorist, nonsensically trying to appropriate black culture for her own ends. “Watermelon has the colors of the Italian flag, you know,” she says. “Red, green, and white. So maybe I’m biased.” The film also lovingly makes fun of the sometimes embarrassing earnestness of lesbian culture. In one scene, the characters attend an open mic night at a women’s club where they are subjected to an abysmal all-lesbian folk band, complete with bongos.
It might be telling that Dunye came up with the story of the Watermelon Woman when she was in graduate school: She was travelling back and forth between the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York and the Library of Congress in D.C., trying to learn about black women in early cinema, only to find that many of the actors were credited by racist monikers or not at all. She began to feel frustrated by the lack of documentation, by the lost lives and unacknowledged gifts of actors and filmmakers whose stories she couldn’t access. In the film, the Watermelon Woman becomes a stand in for all these people, for the talent, humor, and courage that our culture misses out on when we determine that some people aren’t worth paying attention to. “Sometimes you have to create your own history,” the end credits say. “The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”