This week I’m in Chicago!
During my visit to the fabulous Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a provocative exhibition that in part relates to one of my favorite movies: Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). The exhibit “Nothing Personal” interrogates the politics of the archive and includes the fictional, photographic archive of Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson), who is an elusive, but central character in Dunye’s movie. For the movie, artist Zoe Leonard created an archive charting Fae Richards’s life. It’s these fabricated documents that are now on display at the AIC.
The Watermelon Woman follows young black, lesbian filmmaker Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), who works in a video store in Philadelphia with her best friend, and occasional camera assistant, Tamara (Valarie Walker). When she’s not working, Cheryl is making a documentary movie about the deceased Fae Richards, a black actress who featured in Hollywood 1930s movies playing “Mammie” roles and who only ever received credit as the “Watermelon Woman.” Over the course of her research Cheryl discovers that Richards was romantically involved with movie director Martha Page – a type of Dorothy Arzner figure. Cheryl shoots her documentary on video, and the clips from her film are intercut with Cheryl’s confessional video diary, real archival footage, and the faux, fabricated footage from Richards’s movies.
During Cheryl’s quest to make her documentary, the film repeatedly and brilliantly challenges archival practices. Cheryl visits a multitude of sites in pursuit of information about Richards’s life. She first pays a visit to Lee Edwards’s home: Edwards is a black film historian and collector of race movies. While Edwards’s collection is vast, when Cheryl asks him about the Watermelon Woman he tells her “women are not my specialty.” Cheryl and Tamara next visit the public library where at the reference desk they encounter a snooty white male librarian, coded as gay. He tells the women that the library doesn’t hold any reference category on black women in film. A further excursion takes Cheryl to the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology (cheekily referred to as C.L.I.T.). This haphazardly organized, comically bureaucratic archive run by an all-volunteer collective holds a few items on Richards’s life, but Cheryl is forbidden from using them in her film (Many of these photographs appear on exhibition today at AIC). While the movie makes a serious political point about the difficulties of conducting research on history’s most marginalized people and explores a black filmmaker’s complex relationship with America’s exploitative movie heritage, Dunye’s film never loses its sense of cinephilia and fun.
The mise-en-scene of the video store where Cheryl works also resembles something of an archive due to the stacks and stacks of videotapes that loom behind the store’s front desk. In addition to archivists, the clerks perform the roles of film curators, programmers, and reviewers. They order and collect the non-mainstream videos they want to see (many of these are lesbian and pornographic). They also advise customers on what movies they should rent, and in the “two for one video deal” Cheryl suggests movies that will complement each other. The Watermelon Woman is a movie indebted to videotape, but it’s also something of a celebration of video’s aesthetic and the medium itself. In the nineties, the innovations and affordability of the camcorder along with the availability of video rentals permitted a new film culture to flourish and enabled the New Queer Cinema movement. A movement indisputably enriched by Dunye’s contributions.
If you watch The Watermelon Woman today you may be struck by how the movie hasn’t dated, and this seems quite a feat given its relationship to videotape! I could almost believe Cheryl and Tamara are out there right now working in the last video store in Philadelphia. But rather than timelessness, perhaps this is a matter of timeliness given the parallels between The Watermelon Woman and Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black (2014-). To draw just one superficial comparison, the relationship and banter that Cheryl and Tamara share in the video store very much resembles the friendship and back-and-forth between Taystee and Poussey, who work together in the library in OITNB. Unsurprisingly, I’m not the first person to have made this connection. Journalists have asked Dunye to comment on the similarities between her work and OITNB, especially since Dunye actually made a movie about a womens’ prison. Thankfully, Dunye’s nineties movies seem to be receiving greater recognition today. As critic Ruby Rich notes about New Queer Cinema – the term she coined – “the movement…was always eleventy-zillion light-years ahead of the mainstream.” It therefore seems about the right time for the AIC to put on this exhibition that partly pays homage to The Watermelon Woman.
You can currently stream The Watermelon Woman on Amazon Prime.
Another highlight of my visit to the AIC was encountering Edward Hopper’s celebrated painting Nighthawks (1947).
What you don’t get a sense of from reproductions of the painting is the luminosity of the yellow. I stood four rooms back and could still see the brightly lit diner glowing in the distance.