Some advice from filmmaker Cheryl Dunye: 'Keep putting yourself out where you belong'
Growing up in Philadelphia, Cheryl Dunye says she was fascinated by the stories reflected in her mother's scrapbook photos. She studied filmmaking in college and graduate school but didn't see people who looked like her on screen.
Dunye changed that with her 1996 debut, The Watermelon Woman. It is the first feature-length film written and directed by a Black lesbian. In it, Dunye plays a fictionalized version of her 25-year-old self, a video store clerk aspiring to become a filmmaker. In her off hours, she watches films from the 1930s and '40s with Black actresses such as Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers. However, they're often relegated to racially stereotyped roles; some aren't even listed in the credits.
Cheryl decides to make a documentary about an actress who'd been typecast as a mammy in a movie called Plantation Memories and credited as "the watermelon woman." Her quest mirrored that of the real life Dunye, who says archival records about Black actresses of that era were hard to come by. Even then, she often came up empty-handed.
In the film, Cheryl reconstructs the actress' story through personal photos, home movies, and the memories of those who knew her. We learn that Fae Richards, like Cheryl, was from Philadelphia. She had a fraught relationship with the white female director of Plantation Memories. Her acting career stymied by racism, Faye later found lasting love with a Black woman named June. In a letter written from her hospital bed at the end of her life, June encourages Cheryl to "make our history before we are all dead and gone."
The experience leads Cheryl to take stock of her relationship with a white woman she met at the video store and what she's learned about herself while searching for Fae. Speaking into the camera at the close of the film, she says, "Most importantly, what I understand is that I'm 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.' "
After presenting what she discovered about Fae, a title card reveals that the watermelon woman is a fiction invented to tell a true story about the invisibility and erasure of Black lesbian lives. (In real life, Dunye conjured Fae Richards with the help of a faux archive co-created by the photographer Zoe Leonard, parts of which were sold to raise money for the completion of the film.)
Filmmaker and historian Yvonne Welbon says Dunye's film reflected history and possibility. "There's so many ways that we are seeing Black women. We are seeing this Black woman as a filmmaker, and we know the film is made by a Black woman who is searching for a Black woman in film on the other side of the camera, and so it's reminding us all along about Cheryl's agency as a director. It just really drives home the point that sometimes we have to take it upon ourselves to tell our own stories."
But Welbon points out that even today, only about 10% of directors are women. "Then you drill down to our other identities around race and around our orientation," she says. "Cheryl put herself in the film so that filmmakers could see what a Black queer media maker looked like. I don't know if that's why she did it, but we could see her, and in seeing her, it made it possible for other people to believe that they could be just like her."
When The Watermelon Woman premiered in 1996 at the Berlin International Film Festival, it won the prestigious Teddy Prize. It went on to win awards at Italy's Torino Film Festival, France's Cretéil International Women's Film Festival, and LA's OutFest. Newsday called Dunye "the lesbian Spike Lee," but the culture wars were raging, and in 1997 Michigan Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra derided The Watermelon Woman as "possibly pornographic." During a House debate on an appropriations bill, he decried that the film had been funded by taxpayers — referring to a $31,500 NEA grant that made up roughly a tenth of its shoestring budget.
Most of Dunye's subsequent films – including nearly a half dozen features – were made outside Hollywood. Yet The Watermelon Woman was often screened at festivals and colleges, leading to its 20th anniversary restoration and re-release. Columbia University film Professor Racquel J. Gates says its staying power is a testament to Dunye's voice and vision: "She's talking about issues of lesbian identity, but she's also thinking through the politics of race and interracial relationships and friendships, generational differences within lesbian communities, and she's also interweaving that with an interesting, speculative history of Black representation in Hollywood."
As opportunities opened in cable and streaming, Ava Duvernay tapped Dunye to direct episodes of Queen Sugar in 2017. Since then, she's worked on scores of other TV shows, including The Chi, Lovecraft Country and David Makes Man. Series creator Tarell Alvin McCraney says Dunye expanded how Black LGBTQ+ stories are told and by whom, building a legacy for future generations. "She gave me this shirt that is a replica of Brother to Brother, which is also a seminal documentary about queer Black love. Whenever I'm on a set, or I have a meeting, I just wear that shirt because it feels like I'm connected to something bigger than myself. I'm connected to a community of artists who have my back from time immemorial."
Added to the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art, and inducted into the National Film Registry, The Watermelon Woman is now coming to the Criterion Collection. McCraney says becoming part of the canon of films past and present is more than symbolic, particularly in light of the current political climate. "It's making sure that our stories are being told and our voices are still being heard, and that a thread in the fabric is not being unwoven or cut out."
Dunye says her upcoming plans include directing a feature film based on Audre Lorde's 1982 biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and collaborating with Jewelle Gomez to adapt The Gilda Stories, Gomez's trailblazing 1991 novel about a Black lesbian vampire who travels through 200 years of American history, as an episodic television series.
Citing both authors as inspirations for her own journey, Dunye says they also carry a message for others. "Making work is a privilege, a right," Dunye says. "Getting that out there is just connecting with people and community. You have to constantly keep putting yourself out where you belong. There's a loop to it."
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