Reality and Fiction in Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman
For Cheryl Dunye, the art of documentary is self-insertive. It facilitates an encounter with fact by exposing its proximities, urging its audience to recognise structures of visibility and access. Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman is an identikit, faux-documentary and the first feature film directed by an “out” Black lesbian. It follows Cheryl, a young Black lesbian filmmaker, and her discovery of the actress Fae Richards (credited only as “the watermelon woman”), her ubiquitous “mammy” roles, and the sapphic, interracial relationship with her frequent director, Martha Page.
What is most striking about this feature, aside from its vanguard in the New Queer Cinema, is its study of authenticity. Rather than creating an investigation into the real actresses to whom “mammy” roles were relegated, Dunye made up her own. That is, Fae Richards, the subject of Cheryl’s research, did not exist. This invention does not merely qualify the ‘mockumentary’ aspect of the film, it signifies the political reality of Dunye’s filmmaking. Fae Richards, played by Lisa Marie Bronson in the constructed footage, stands for the erasure of Black actresses of the 30s/40s. She stands for Dunye’s limited access to Black lesbian history, an inaccessibility actualised brilliantly during Cheryl’s visit to the C.L.I.T., where she is confronted with white feminists who gatekeep the Black lesbian archives. Dunye’s exposure to her Black queer history, both in the film and in actuality, is restricted; controlled and reclaimed by white feminists. Thus in order to emulate an encounter with this forgotten history, Dunye fabricates and fills in the gaps. By creating The Watermelon Woman, she creates a new history, one she can access and connect with.
Throughout the film, we see the development of Cheryl’s own interracial relationship parallel the contents of her research, a parallel authenticated brilliantly by the medium of faux-documentary. It is, perhaps, the most liberating medium to express Dunye’s experience as a lesbian and a filmmaker. A faux-documentary of Black actresses in the 30s/40s reminds us of their erasure, one simply cannot conduct real research with such limited resources, all the while ‘documenting’ and therefore autonomising the experience of Black lesbian filmmakers.
The specific history The Watermelon Woman describes may be fiction, but its message of accessibility and authenticity emerges as invaluable truth.