Jack H. Skirball Series
The Watermelon Woman
Los Angeles theatrical revival
1996, 85 min., screened in Beta SP
Cheryl Dunye's "saucy, daring, insidiously smart debut" (The Boston Phoenix) stands as the first-ever theatrical feature directed by an African American lesbian. The Watermelon Woman tells the story of Cheryl, played engagingly by Dunye herself, who develops a fascination with 1930s actress Fae Richards--a fictional character confined to playing "Mammy" roles in movies by a Dorothy Azner-type director. As part of the production, New York photographer Zoe Leonard shot cleverly constructed still images of Fae Richards and in the process (re)invented a history running counter to the invisibility of black women in early Hollywood and black lesbians in general. The winner of the Teddy (the Berlinale) and Outstanding Narrative Feature (Outfest) awards, The Watermelon Woman also managed to raise the hackles of unreconstructed reactionary Jesse Helms, who called the work "flotsam floating down a sewer."