March 30, 2022
...Lorraine O'Grady Film Club: "The Watermelon Woman" (1996) by Cheryl Dunye

In Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996), Cheryl, an aspiring filmmaker and video-store clerk in Philadelphia, is compelled to research the complicated and subversive lives of Black actresses during the 1930’s and 40’s. After watching a film titled Plantation Memories featuring a Black actress playing a mammy stereotype credited only as “The Watermelon Woman,” she decides to make a documentary in which she attempts to uncover the Watermelon Woman’s real identity. A series of interviews with elders, cultural critics, and possible colleagues of this unidentified woman lead Cheryl into a journey of self-reflection and personal unraveling.

Still from The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye, 1996 (90 Minutes)
Still from The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye, 1996 (90 Minutes)

Cheryl Dunye (b. 1966, Monrovia, Liberia) is a Liberian-American film director, producer, screenwriter, editor and actress. Dunye's work often concerns themes of race, sexuality, and gender, particularly relating to Black lesbians and often starring herself. Her early works blur the boundary between documentary and fiction, as does her first feature film, The Watermelon Woman, which explores a fictionalized archive to talk about the history (or lack thereof) of Black lesbians in cinema. She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, Pitzer College, Claremont Graduate University, Pomona College, California Institute of the Arts, The New School of Social Research, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and San Francisco State University.

Lorraine O’Grady Film Club #4:

The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye, 1996 (90 Minutes)
5pm PST / 8pm EST
Click here to join the Zoom screening

Also on our mind is Lorraine O’Grady’s performance Nefertiti/ Devonia Evangeline, which premiered at Just Above Midtown in 1980. In this meditation of sisterhood and representation, O’Grady reflects on her complicated relationship with the art historical canon by juxtaposing images from her own family album with Ancient Egyptian sculptures. O’Grady simultaneously considers the domestic realm of Nefertiti and her sister Mutnedgmet, while also interrogating the racist rhetoric of Egyptology as a discipline.

Lorraine O’Grady, Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, 1980-88. Photography by Freida Leinwand
Lorraine O’Grady, Nefertiti/Devonia Evangeline, 1980-88. Photography by Freida Leinwand

How does revisiting the archive from a Black female perspective interrogate Western narratives?

In what ways does Cheryl’s fascination with Fae Richards resemble O’Grady’s interest in Nefertiti?

How are politics of representation critiqued through Black cinema and performance?

The Lorraine O’Grady Film Club is hosted by Selam Bekele and Meghan Smith every month, on Wednesdays, from December 2021 to March 2022.