In Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996), a search into film history becomes one inextricably tied to personal identity. A quasi-documentary, Dunye plays herself, a young Black-lesbian film director working day-to-day at a video rental store. She uses her workplace as an opportunity to delve into a vast library of not just any cinema, but American films from the 1930s and 40s—a time when Black actresses were more often than not relegated to “Mammy” roles in plantation films. One actress in particular enraptures Dunye but is only listed under the credits as “The Watermelon Woman.” Dunye becomes both furious and inspired. She decides to make her first film a documentary about who the Watermelon Woman really was.
Dunye discovers the Watermelon Woman to be Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), a Philadelphia-born singer and actress. More importantly, however, Dunye also discovers Richards was the artistic muse and lover of Martha Paige, a white female Hollywood director. In an interracial relationship herself, as well as also being from Philadelphia, Dunye finds Richards’ and Paige’s maverick behavior exhilarating and relatable.
For Dunye it’s not just through film history that she comes to understand herself as a Black-lesbian woman but also through the very medium of cinema. To this extent, Dunye incorporates self-reflexive aspects into the film, where she speaks directly to the camera and discusses the ongoing process of making her documentary, and the effects it has on her personal life; namely, the racial tension which arises between her girlfriend Diana (Guinevere Turner) and her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker).
As Dunye learns, creating cinema comes at a personal cost. In this case, that cost is related to Dunye’s racial and sexual identity. It’s in Dunye’s personage that the significance of “The Watermelon Woman’s” existence as a film comes to light. As she tells the camera towards the beginning of the film, “…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.”
With the “The Watermelon Woman,” then, Dunye is simultaneously uncovering and creating a history of Black women before preserving it with the essence of film.