The 1996 Black Lesbian Film That Became Essential Viewing for 2020

Cheryl Dunye’s arthouse classic The Watermelon Woman teaches Hollywood some important lessons.

The coronavirus pandemic has come with an odd paradox for the movie business. Efforts to stop the spread of the virus have shut down theaters across the country—putting to a sudden halt the way films are supposed to be experienced: on a big screen and in the company of others—just as Americans have been hungrier than ever for film and television entertainment to keep them occupied while physical distancing. Naturally, the new reality led to a surge in new subscriptions in streaming services.

Then, at the same time that people found themselves locked inside and tied to their screens, a Minneapolis police officer brutally killed George Floyd, igniting a worldwide social justice movement that demanded an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

That pivotal moment of national introspection has also led to an increased appetite for aesthetic representations of marginalized people. Netflix unleashed a Black Lives Matter collection. The Criterion Channel put out a retrospective of pioneering Black filmmakers. Their logic made sense: Art is perhaps the greatest instrument through which we can understand the human experience. No wonder, then, it is where Americans have turned to make sense of the nation’s social unrest.

That has come with an added benefit. Filmmakers who were once relatively obscure are now getting the attention they have long deserved.

Just ask Cheryl Dunye. More than two decades after its release, her groundbreaking arthouse film, The Watermelon Woman, has been making something of a mainstream comeback. News outlets like Vanity Fair and Complex are writing think pieces on the film’s significance. The Criterion Channel included her semi-autobiographical 1996 film in its Black cinema spotlight, as well as in its June 2020 Pride month lineup. That’s because the movie depicted intersectional struggle before “intersectionality” was even considered a thing: the story follows a Black lesbian filmmaker named Cheryl who works at a video rental store and who is making a documentary about a Black lesbian actress from the 1930s.

“Putting myself into my work is something that I was already doing even before The Watermelon Woman,” she told me in a recent interview. “I went to art school, got an MFA at Rutgers and that’s sort of where I started putting myself into my own pictures. I think that that’s something that I’ve always wanted to do with my own personal ideasAs a Black lesbian, being out and queer and doing a different thing, it was definitely a long time before I got to this point where I am now, but I was able to work more independently.”

The Watermelon Woman is widely recognized as the first film directed by a Black lesbian, with Dunye starring in its lead role.  It earned a cult-like status among cinephiles and Black and queer communities almost immediately after its release. The movie received critical praise and won a Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival and Audience Award for Outstanding Narrative Feature at L.A. Outfest. But it has never quite gotten as much attention as it is now.

That’s partly because, even in the years since its release, there hasn’t been a great surge in more movies portraying queer people of color. Most of the LGBTQ films of the last 10 years—Call Me By Your Name, Brokeback Mountain, The Favorite—feature white queer couples without any black or brown characters in sight. Director Clea Duvall’s upcoming holiday-themed lesbian romantic comedy, starring Kristen Stewart, features a similarly homogenous looking cast.

Television shows have done better. According to GLAAD’s annual “Where We Are in TV” report, 2018 was the first year that people of color made up more than half of the queer characters on TV—up from 24 percent 10 years ago. “You can see that Hollywood has changed a bit,” Dunye told me. “There are strides, and there is a big effort all over. But there aren’t a lot of people doing it at that level, there are just a few.”

The question now, however, is whether a newfound interest in Dunye’s work—and the demands of a growing societal awareness over the plight racial and sexual minorities—will make films about queer people of color more of a norm than an outlier.

That starts with who is given a chance to tell the stories that shape our culture. A 2015 study from the Director’s Guild of America revealed that only three percent of television episodes from 2014-2015 were directed by minority females. In other words, Black lesbian directors like Dunye aren’t as likely to receive opportunities as their white counterparts.

A Washington Post analysis of the 2015 Academy of Motion Pictures Awards found that among the 317 male directors, who “rank among Hollywood’s most powerful decision makers,” only 50 weren’t white. As the study notes, this group wields “unmistakable power behind the scenes, by deciding which projects get funded, which actors get cast–and which stories get ignored.” Even lists of the top gay and lesbian directors in the industry show white men are overrepresented compared to women and persons of color.

The good news is, people are  starting to recognize that. “There are conversations happening now about the lack of black and brown folks in queer culture production,” Dunye said. As the Black director Steve McQueen wrote in The Guardian, there is a need for more Black and Minority Experience (BAME) employees working behind the camera. “It felt like I had walked out of one environment, the London I was surrounded by, into another, a place that was alien to me,” McQueen wrote. “I could not believe the whiteness of the set.”

The critical resurrection of The Watermelon Woman should inspire Hollywood to fix this problem. The film’s lasting success proves that films about Black lesbians are not micro-targeted exclusively to Black lesbian audiences. In fact, they can touch on universally appealing themes that resonate with and interest broader audiences. The Watermelon Woman, after all, is about the struggle to understand one’s identity. Who doesn’t relate to that?

Today, Dunye is working on a TV pilot, which is slated to be released later this year but doesn’t yet have a premiere date. She is also trying to expand a previously made short film, Black is Blue—about a Black trans security guard—into a larger, full-length production.

And while she’s enjoying and appreciating the attention her first film is getting now, she’s not dwelling on it. Rather, she’s using it as an engine to spur future work. “[That’s something] I had to get over a long time ago, about this sense of what I am owed and what the universe has given me,” Dunye said. “To receive that visibility now, I’m not going say, ‘Oh, it’s been out there, people just haven’t seen the work.’ That’s what being an artist is about, ya know. It’s about inspiring a movement.” Lucky for us all, Dunye might just be doing that.

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Giulia Heyward

Giulia Heyward is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.