To watch this film is to be in the presence of a remarkable talent -- Dee Rees. This is an unusually accomplished piece of filmmaking, not simply for someone starting out, but for anyone with a couple of decades of writing and directing behind them.
Ms. Rees is that good.
Add to this her sensitivity and passion in exploring a young woman of color as she navigates her inner awakenings, her growing awareness of who she is. Ms. Rees handles this with the confidence of a long-time pro. And with the understanding of one who very much understands the roiling waters of her young character's dilemma.
Ms. Rees handles the young actor, Adepero Oduye, with equally assured sensitivity. Ms. Oduye takes over the screen without showcasing herself, often underplaying a moment, letting us come to her. There's no 'emoting' ... for proof of the young Ms. Oduye's impressively wide range, check her out in the current Richard Gere film, The Dinner. In her scenes with Gere, Ms. Oduye dominates the frame, an old scene-stealer like Richard Gere no match for the oh-so talented Adepero Oduye. She wipes him off the screen! A smashing talent, Ms. Odoye, and smashing-looking, to boot.
Though the film works for both the LGBT and (I suppose, can't speak from experience) non-LGBT audience, it is especially satisfying and heartening to see us portrayed with such unflinching honesty and understanding. With Pariah and Moonlight, directors of color are showing the way home when it comes to exploring our LGBT world.
A sensitive, probing drama. Exploring America through race and sexuality. Beautifully acted, written, directed. To see black Americans portrayed with such complexity is so rare in mainstream American film. And then, on top of this, a sympathetic and positive portrait of gay men. I have a cringe meter which monitors how we, gays, are treated. Goes off constantly in most films. Not Moonlight, not a single cringe meter gong. Wonderful film.
A cause for celebration, this 20th Anniversary DVD release. The Watermelon Woman was a revelation back in 1996 and it is -- shame on us -- perhaps even more to-the-point today.
Seated by myself at the Film Forum here in NYC, 1996, a gay non-Black guy, I was expecting a variation on the Melvin Van Peebles satire from the early seventies, The Watermelon Man. But a mere five minutes into The Watermelon Woman, I knew I was in the presence of something special, indeed. Here was a tsunami of vivid, fresh air.
Cheryl Dunye -- writer, director, star -- had created something utterly new. Here she was, placing a Black Lesbian at the center, unapologetic about her same-sex longing and needs, about her rich magnetic Blackness, her fierce yet tender femaleness. For me, used to seeing Lesbians or gay men like myself held up for mockery or derision or contempt, it was a revelation to see Lesbians portrayed as just part of the human tapestry, regular people making it through the day, paying bills, falling in and out of lust and love.
For that alone, The Watermelon Woman deserves high praise. But it is about so much more. For Ms. Dunye uses her Blackness to probe an America which has never come to terms with its deep racist history. Ms. Dunye confronts it with wit and candor. Her character is researching a beautiful Black actress from the 1930s, who never received a credit in her films. It's like she never existed, a mere celluloid presence, nothing more.
As she probes deeper into the actress's past, Ms. Dunye begins peeling away her own reality. As both a Lesbian and a Black woman, in an America which marginalizes Lesbians, Blacks, women. She is forced to question assumptions about what it means to be a Lesbian and both a woman and a woman of color.
And here is where The Watermelon Woman becomes as timely as it was back in 1996. For in confronting her own marginalization, Ms. Dunye makes crystal clear why today's Black Lives Matter is so important to today's America. Like any work of art -- and make no mistake, The Watermelon Woman is a work of art, indeed -- meanings change over time. And though Black Lives Matter hadn't yet become a rallying cry, its genesis is inherent in The Watermelon Woman.
Cheryl Dunye, you and The Watermelon Woman are a oner!