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Film / Watermelon Man

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Watermelon Man is a 1970 American satirical comedy film directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Written by Herman Raucher, it's about an obnoxious and bigoted white insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber (played by Godfrey Cambridge, a pioneering black stand-up comic), who wakes up one morning to find that he has become a black man, to his own horror as well as that of his ostensibly liberal wife Althea (played by Estelle Parsons). The film's premise was inspired by Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis and John Howard Griffin's autobiographical Black Like Me.

Van Peebles' only studio film, Watermelon Man was a financial success, but Van Peebles did not accept Columbia Pictures' three-picture contract, as he knew that no one was going to finance his following film: Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. The music for Watermelon Man, written and performed by Van Peebles, was released on a soundtrack album, which spawned the single "Love, that's America". In 2011, that single received much mainstream attention when videos set to the song and featuring footage of Occupy Wall Street became viral.

This film provides examples of:

  • "Angry Black Man" Stereotype: Gerber has become this at the end of his film, disaffected with the system and training to defend himself by force.
  • Black Face: Inverted. Originally, the film producers wanted a white man who'd be made up as a black man for the rest of the film. Instead Peebles managed to convince them to cast Godfrey Cambridge, who was made up as a white man for the first section of the film.
  • Black Is Bigger in Bed: Joked with twice in the film, both times with Gerber muttering that it's "an old wives' tale".
  • Bringing Running Shoes to a Car Chase: Jeff's morning workout is running along with a bus on the way to work (instead of just taking the bus). After he turns black he gets stopped by the cops for running while Black. They assume he stole something - why else would he be running?
  • Color Me Black: The basic premise of the movie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jeff.
    Althea: You took advantage of them because you're colored! Those people were our friends!
    Jeff: What was I supposed to do? Give them a discount?!
  • Downer Ending: Jeff's family and friends end up disowning him, feeling clearly ashamed of him at best, and despising him at worst.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: When asked what he's paid for doing the menial work, Gerber makes the quip often attributed to Bill Cosby, et al that "The lady of the house lets me sleep with her". He also name-checks Chinese launderers when accusing his wife of having Chinese heritage.
  • A House Divided: Althea and the kids move away from Jeff because he's black now.
  • Hypocrite: Gerber's acquaintances are shown to bemoan his exaggerated racism, yet they are horrified at the thought of interacting with a black man.
  • Ignored Aesop: Gerber after turning into the race he hates doesn't learn a lesson about racism, he just forces the town's representatives (who don't want a black man around) to hand over $100,000 for him to move out. He even makes some racist comments about Asian people as well after he turns black.
  • Jerkass: Gerber, before and after his Karmic Transformation.
  • Karmic Transformation: Gerber is turned into the race that he hates.
    • Althea has one too. At the start of the movie she supported black civil rights. After Jeff's transformation, Althea snaps and complains she has the right to refuse a black husband and after she leaves him, it is implied Althea is now searching for a white man.
  • Where da White Women At?: Averted regarding Gerber and his wife. Played straight with the Norwegian secretary, who wants Gerber because he's black.