The Invention of Cheryl Dunye

[Notes on The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, USA 1995]

One can divide cinema audience in two categories of people: Those who leave a screening before the closing credits and those who devour them until the lights are turned on again. Closing credits represent the same for lonely cinephiles as footnotes for unfulfilled scholars: the last attempt to prolong pleasure that is about to end. In the theater, the final applause allows space for the actors to break the fourth wall and to face their audience as actors. In cinema, the transition from emotionally compelling action to the factual listing of cast and crew members is less glamorous, nonetheless, it performs the same function – by marking a presumable shift from illusion to reality.

In The Watermelon Woman, the decisive encounters occur precisely in the space of the closing credits – both inside and outside of the film’s narrative. This is not a coincidence – since closing titles and the film’s subject matter share the same marginalized position within the hierarchy of film history. In The Watermelon Woman, the closing titles occupy the center of its narrative; they represent on many levels the ultimate void within its matryoshka doll like structure.

The film’s storyline centers on the life and work of Cheryl (performed by Cheryl Dunye herself), a young Black lesbian working a day job in a video store while trying to make a film about “The Watermelon Woman” – a woman named Fae Richards, who played stereotypical “mammy” roles relegated to Black actresses in Hollywood films in the 1930s and 1940s. The central narrative’s plot concerns Cheryl’s relationship with a white woman, Diana, and the parallels between Cheryl’s experiences and the subject matter of her research: Fae Richards, who was also a lesbian who had an affair with one of her white directors Martha Page. Meta-fictionally, Cheryl often addresses the camera as she describes her progress in making the film within the film, and the film presents us with scenes creating her film, performing interviews and undertaking archival research.

Cheryl Dunye, the director, faces the challenge to reconstruct the visibility of subject positions of Black lesbian artists by simultaneously exploring and creating film history. It is precisely this multilayered narrative that allows her to escape the trap of an essentialist approach.

(Excerpt)

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