This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
THE INVENTION OF CHERYL DUNYE
[Notes on The Watermelon Woman by Cheryl Dunye, USA 1995]
Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Cheryl Dunye, 1996 She had to create her own hope, inspiration, and possibility through the creation of a history that was not, but could have been, in some ways should have been, there. Laura L. Sullivan, 20001
Martyna Starosta / thefilmdetective.org
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. 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.2 In her first monolog about her documentary, Cheryl, the director's alter ego, informs her audience that in many films of the 1930s and 1940s, the black actresses were not even listed in the credits. It is the historical invisibility of black women in film that serves as the point of departure for Cheryl's ambitious journey as she aspires to rehabilitate the identity
Martyna Starosta / thefilmdetective.org
and talent of an actress who stars in a film entitled Plantation Memories – and who is only credited as “The Watermelon Woman.” And it is again in the closing credits, this time in the credits of the actual film The Watermelon Woman, in which Cheryl Dunye, the director, informs her audience that the figure of Cheryl's distant soul mate Fae Richards belongs to the realm of fiction. It is worthwhile to juxtapose the particular history of Cheryl Dunye's closing credits with the history of closing credits in general. Everybody who works in the film business is aware that credits do not represent an objective listing of division of labor – on the contrary, they mark a highly contested terrain of claims about creative authorship, hierarchy and power. It is remarkable in this context that the use of closing credits, which list the complete production crew and cast, is a fairly recent invention, which was not firmly established, in American films until the 1970s. Before this decade, most movies were released with no closing credits at all. Until today, the main creative focus lays on the opening titles while the closing titles can be regarded as the poor cousin of film history. It is also important to notice that The Watermelon Woman did not contain any reference to the fictional status of Fae Richards when the film was first screened.3 Laura L. Sullivan points out that “there are three possible viewing positions of the film: never learning that the documentary portions record a fictional subject's life; realizing while viewing the film, or learning during the film's credits that Dunye created the character of Fae Richards; and knowing about the actress's fictional status at the film's outset, for example, after having read a review of the film.”4 Thus, one can regard Dunye's multilayered use of credit titles as yet another of her savvy and self-reflexive strategies of “empowerment from the margins”. I did not find one synopsis of The Watermelon Woman, which would fail to inform the reader that Cheryl Dunye is the first feature film director in the U.S. who identifies herself as an AfricanAmerican lesbian. Apparently, the director embodies the most invisibilized figure in the textual production of U.S. hegemonic culture. Describing the appearance of this figure as “delayed” in film history would present a crass understatement: Dunye's film was released in 1995 – exactly one hundred years (!) after the invention of cinema.5 In The Watermelon Woman, Dunye created a complex cinematic space in which she comments on her own position as a filmmaker. In fact, her multilayered narrative around the motif of the phantom Fae Richards allows her to simultaneously embrace and negate the privilege and the burden of representing the figure of “the” Black lesbian artist.
Martyna Starosta / thefilmdetective.org
In her last monolog, Cheryl, the director's alter ego, addresses the viewer directly in order to explain the meaning of Fae Richard's legacy for her own life: It means hope; it means inspiration; it means possibility. It means history. And most important what I understand is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, "I am a black, lesbian filmmaker," who's just beginning, but I'm gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do. Anyway-what you've all been waiting for-the biography of Fae Richards. Faith Richardson. One year, after the film's release, Cheryl Dunye, the director, elaborated in an interview on her use of moving images as a strategy of “moving on” in her life: I think that what Watermelon Woman does is says that you can have your own Watermelon Woman too, and you do have your own Watermelon Woman. And you have to acknowledge that and move on with it.6 Hence, the elaborate narrative of The Watermelon Woman can be understood as a twofold commentary on the past and present of a racist and homophobic film industry: A powerful gesture of both re-appropriation and exorcism.
Martyna Starosta, March 2012
1 Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility. Callalo: A Journal of AfricanAmerican and African Arts Letters. Special Issue, “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Literature and Culture.” 23.1 (Winter 2000): 448-460. 2 Sullivan, Laura L.: op. cit. p. 451 3 Sullivan, Laura L: op. cit. p. 455 4 Sullivan, Laura L: op. cit. p. 455 5 If we agree on Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895) by the Lumière brothers as the first motion picture ever made. 6 http://www.cheryldunye.com/pages/interview.html