Re-writing History: Writer-Director Francis Lee on unsung queer romance
23 February 2021
A few years have passed since Francis Lee came to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but he...
The Watermelon Woman is an upbeat romantic comedy-drama film following the story of a young, Black lesbian woman who is on a mission to uncover the lost story of a Black Hollywood actress (known as the Watermelon Woman) from the 1930s. She encounters various personal and practical stumbling blocks on her undertaking, all of which gesture towards the challenges of being a creative, young, Black, lesbian woman. However, this film is not at all a downer - it carries an upbeat, light-hearted mood that shines a light on real moments of joy, friendship, and care.
Viewing as an auto-fiction mockumentary, it stars Cheryl Dunye, Valarie Walker and Guinevere Turner. It features street interview-style footage - iconic to many Black films such as Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it (1986) and Radha Blank’s 40 Year Old Version (2020). It is truly a tribute to film and to the identities it focuses on and celebrates. Themes of gender identity, race, sexual orientation and love are explored through the authentic and oftentimes hilarious misadventures of the lead character, Cheryl, and her friend Tamara. The film also presents the challenges of Black friendship and interracial romantic relationships.
The Watermelon Woman highlights the systemic erasure of Black, queer creative labour from both collective memory and the archive. It illustrates the importance of films in black culture as a site for representation and creative expression. By focusing on the obscurity of the Watermelon Woman’s mystery, the film also exposes the impact of the stereotypical roles assigned to Black actresses (in this case, the ‘mammy’ figure). Historical and contemporary social issues such as bureaucracy, police violence, and racial profiling of Black youth are also discussed. However, it is refreshing to experience a film about the Black queer experience that does not centre on trauma and violence but exposes the subtle moments in which they appear.
Written by Tanatsei Gambura, member of our EIFF Youth Advisory Group.
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