Who is the Watermelon Woman? If you’re not already familiar with the 1996 indie lesbian film that shares her name, you can find out now that a restored, 20th anniversary edition is out on DVD and iTunes.
Directed by and starring Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman follows Cheryl, a young black lesbian filming a documentary about a black film actress from the 1930s who is often credited as “The Watermelon Woman.” As she works to uncover information about the life of the actress, whose name is Fae Richards, Cheryl navigates the intersections of race and sexual orientation in Richards’ life and her own.
A cultural and social commentary, The Watermelon Woman addresses the void of lesbians in accounts of black film history and African-American women in accounts of queer film history. When Dunye couldn’t find examples of such individuals in film history, she decided to create her own history to explore what a queer actress of color would look like.
The Watermelon Woman made film history of its own as the first feature film directed by an African-American lesbian.
Over time, the film has become a cultural artifact capturing the experience of queer women of color in Philadelphia in the ’90s, and one that’s equal parts comedy and commentary.
The film is a fun for people who are nostalgic for people who grew up in and around Philly, and it’s also fun for people to revisit a gender or race or sexuality memory, Dunye says, noting that 20 years later, it still hits the same sort of marks and punches.
And nearly 20 years after The Watermelon Woman was first released, Dunye collaborated with Alexandra Juhasz, who originally produced the film, and producer Mark Smolowitz to restore and re-release it.
The restoration was made possible by 13th Gen, Outfest Legacy Project, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Toronto International Film Festival, and First Run Features and it is now part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.
“The MoMA was a wonderful honor,” says Dunye. “[The Watermelon Woman is] not only a queer film; it’s an important film that needed to be restored by an important archive. To me [its inclusion] says that I didn’t just make something that plays at lesbian and gay festivals and diversity classes—I made something that is important in cinema!”
Dunye is currently working on a film called Black Is Blue, which highlights Oakland, California’s community of trans people of color in a style similar to that of The Watermelon Woman.