The Watermelon Woman is a 1996 film directed by Cheryl Dunye. It centers on the director As Herself investigating the life of a mysterious Black actress from the The Golden Age of Hollywood, credited only as "the Watermelon Woman". Intercut with her quest are scenes dramatizing Dunye's own life working at a video store, hanging out with friends, awkward jobs filming events for hire, and dating life.
It is the first known feature length film to be directed by a Black lesbian. Its post-production budget was financed by the United States National Endowment for the Arts, which set off a flurry of controversy over its perceived explicit material, despite all of its content falling comfortably within the usual standards for an R rating. Since then, the NEA since has only been permitted to fund specific pre-approved projects.
The Watermelon Woman contains examples of:
- Based on a Great Big Lie: The last shot of the film before the credits reveals the truth. Fae Richards wasn't real and neither were the films she was depicted in.
- Bittersweet Ending: Cheryl and Fae's fates are contrasted at the end. Fae ended up leaving Hollywood and hopes of fame to retire in obscurity, but lived the rest of her life surrounded by family and loved ones. Inversely, Cheryl's pursuit of this project to hit it big has resulted in strained relationships with her best friend and now-former girlfriend.
- Black Is Bigger in Bed: Cheryl is surprised to learn that Tamara stole a customer's account to rent Big Bald Black Cocks despite being a lesbian, to which Tamara admits she's just a little curious.
- Butch Lesbian: Cheryl and Tamara have this look.
- Casting Gag: In additional to Cheryl Dunye herself, much of the cast includes real-life LGBT activists and writers including Cheryl Clarke, Guinevere Turner, Sarah Schulman, Brian Freeman, V.S. Brodie, David Rakoff, among others.
- Fun with Acronyms: Cheryl finds more records of lesbian history at the Center for Lesbian Information Technology.
- Foreshadowing: Diana doesn't seem to mind being made to rent a porn film fixated on Black dicks, which makes sense with the reveal that she exclusively dated Black men in the past.
- Hollywood Tone-Deaf: One of Cheryl's dates at the local karaoke turns out to be this.
- No Ending: The film abruptly halts shortly after Cheryl's last lead is unable to aid with the investigation, and several key events like the details of Fae's post-Hollywood life or Cheryl breaking up with Diana are left undepicted.
- Positive Discrimination: Cultural critic Camille Page goes on a long but fast-paced rant about how the Mammy and watermelon stereotypes are actually empowering for Black people... by comparing them to perceptions of Italians. One gets the sense Dunye let her go on at length just to underscore how every following sentence made her comparison even more inane.
- Took the Bad Film Seriously: This was the only real option for Black actors in the Golden Age who had to act in racist roles, and part of what perks Cheryl's interest in the Watermelon Woman as she passionately acts out a part that makes her a Mammy to a white Southern Belle.
- Where da White Women At?: Diana turns out to have dated three Black men before Cheryl, which sets off Dunye's alarms that her date views her as a fetish. Tamara suspected this beforehand.