Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Watermelon Woman, a film by Cheryl Dunye

Today in the first day of WMST 601, one of the core courses in my PhD program at the University of Maryland, we watched the film Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye. Let me first be plain. I love this film. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1997 and being completely enamoured by it. It reflected a particular moment in my life and I identified profoundly with the entire film. In addition to the personal resonance, this is an extraordinary film in the world of lesbian film. It’s Dunye’s first full-length film and includes amazing homages to earlier lesbian films as well as lesbian cultural icons of the moment of its production. For instance, Sarah Schulman plays the volunteer at CLIT, the lesbian archive where everything is uncatalogued and just in boxes. Likewise, Cheryl Clark, the incredible lesbian poet, plays June Walker, the long time lover of the fictitious Fay Richards, the ostensible subject of this docu-mocu-Dunyementary.

At the core of this film is Dunye’s desire to find Fay Richards, a black actress who plays small parts in films from the 1930s. In the process of her research, she finds out that Richards was a lesbian having an interracial relationship with Martha Page, the director of many of the films that Richards was acting in. This narrative is counterpointed with Cheryl’s own story of dating Diana, played by Genvieve Turner, a white woman.

I was cranky in class about it because as I did the first time I saw the film, I feel disappointed that it is basically a satirical farce. There is no Fay Richards, or Faith Richardson. She is an imagined character. The bottom line is I want real history. Real lesbian history. Real Black lesbian history. I don’t want to have to make things up and I don’t want Cheryl Dunye to have to make things up. This is not rational. I’m not suggesting that it is rational. It’s just the state of how I feel about this. I wrote about this a bit in the last blog post. I feel worried, and sometimes even panicky, that queer history is being documented or written about enough. In that vein, for me to see someone as talented as Dunye making up history, just sits wrong. I want her to find the real film stars who were lesbians and make a film about them! Enough of that, however, I completely acknowledge that it is just something that sits in my craw.

The things that I observed about this film besides my peevish issue is, again, the function of interracial couples. I counterpoint it with Butler’s interracial couples. First, the interracial couple seems to be a way for writers and artists to begin to approach the issues of cross cultural relationships and communication. I’m fascinated that it is relationships, that is sexual relationship between people, and not simply friendship. In regard to Dunye, in particular, I wonder if that is because at the particular moment we are in right now the focus is exclusively on sexual relationships and there is little in popular culture or circulating theoretically about different ways we build families and emotional intimacy. I continue to be interested in ways that that can be countered, ways to counter what I see as a hegemony of intimate dyadic relationships (I’m consciously not using the word monogamous.) At any rate, the interracial couple stands in for a way for power relationships to be understood and for issues of communication to be explored. In The Watermelon Woman, unlike Kindred, by the conclusion of the film, there are no interracial relationships that are sustained. Cheryl has broken up with Diana and has invented Fay to be in a long term relationship with another Black woman. The interracial relationships are a tool which are used for narrative purposes and for the explorations of the film, but they are not something that is sustained or able to last beyond the space of the film. Personally, something chafes me about that, but in the film, I think that it works. I’m interested in the trope of the interracial couple and how it is used in these texts.

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