With the exception of last year's immensely stunning Moonlight, there rarely have been films that tackle gay and lesbian counterculture, especially in terms of race. Usually, when it comes to the African American experience, being LGBT still seems to be taboo in today's society. Fortunately, director Cheryl Dunye's 1996 landmark film, The Watermelon Woman, broke the mold of not just gay and lesbian society, but also its viewpoint from the lives of black women. Even after twenty years, it remains a sharp and funny observation of love and filmmaking.
Dunye herself stars as a twenty-something black lesbian working in a Philadelphia video store with her cynical best friend Tamara, while making a documentary about Fae Richards, a beautiful and elusive 1930s black actress known simply as "The Watermelon Woman". On her journey of trying to uncover Richards' life and career, she meets and falls in love with Diana, a cute and intelligent white woman that interrupts not just her friendship with Tamara, her documentary, but her own life as well. Because of all these internal and external struggles, Cheryl is forced to question herself and her future.
What makes the film such a landmark of LGBT cinema is that for first time a story of cultural history was told by not just a lesbian woman, but an African American one. Dunye's incredible eye for dialogue and truth came from her own experiences living in a time where stories like hers just wasn't told or put up on the screen. Watching it now, you got the sense that things were about to change, mostly in terms of how gay and lesbian individuals were being depicted. Make no mistake, this is not a typical film about the LGBT stereotype. It's a groundbreaking and amazingly personal journey of self-discovery and finding your own history and identity. It also shows a time video stores were all the rage and beneficial to those including movie geeks who needed their own place to belong.
You're also treated to an array of cameos appearances by famous LGBT figures such as film critic Camille Paglia, singer/songwriter Toshi Reagan, performer Brian Freeman, poet Cheryl Clark, and novelist Sarah Schulman. From these viewpoints, you're able to get facts and information of gay and lesbian culture and how important it truly is to American history.
The DVD from First Run Features includes Dunye's 2014 award-winning short film, Black is Blue, which explores the lives of trans black men, and how they face the everyday struggles of racism and transphobia. It is another great example of her storytelling style of honesty and reality that is a must-see.
Overall, time has been very good to Dunye's modern classic, because the story is completely universal and extremely relevant. More stories and films like this need to be told, where history/culture, humanity and art come compellingly together.