Set in Philadelphia,The Watermelon Woman is the story of Cheryl(Cheryl Dunye), a twenty something black lesbian struggling to make a documentary about Fae Richards, a beautiful and elusive 1930’s black film actress popularly known as “The Watermelon Woman”.
While uncovering the meaning of Fae Richards’ life,Cheryl experiences a total upheaval in her personal life. Her love affair with Diana (Guinevere Turner,Go Fish), a beautiful white woman, and her interactions with the gay and black communities are subject to the comic yet biting criticism of her best friend Tamara( Valarie Walker). Meanwhile,each answer Cheryl discovers about the Watermelon Woman evokes a flurry of new questions about herself and her future. At the film’s conclusion,the Watermelon Woman is clearly a metaphor for Cheryl’s search for identity,community,and love.
According to director Cheryl Dunye,much about the character she plays in the film is autobiographical,but the historical references to the Watermelon Woman are fictional: “The Watermelon Woman came from a real lack of information about the lesbian and film history of African-American women. Since it wasn’t happening, I invented it.” Well-known lesbian photographer Zoe Leonard collaborated by creating a fictional photographic “archive”from the “life” of the Watermelon Woman. Leonard’s photographs for the film have shown internationally and at two Whitney Biennials, and are published in the book The Fae Richards Photo Archive (Artspace Books 1997). Leonard is represented by Hauser & Wirth in New York.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN features cameo performances by notable figures including Camille Paglia (controversial cultural critic), Toshi Reagon (African American lesbian singer/songwriter), Brian Freeman (actor from the performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos), Cheryl Clark (African American lesbian poet), and Sarah Schulman (lesbian novelist and activist).
Cheryl Dunye, a native of Liberia,received her BA from Temple University and her MFA from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School Of Arts. Dunye’s most recent film,BLACK IS BLUE, won awards at five major festivals,and has struck a powerful nerve with the exploration of everyday racism and transphobic experiences in the lives of trans black men. Her fifth feature film, MOMMY IS COMING,continues to win international awards as the first queer adult romantic comedy. Dunye’s fourth feature film THE OWLS, was celebrated at national and international film festivals in 2010. Her third feature film, Miramax’s MY BABY’S DADDY, was a box office success and played at theaters nationwide. Dunye’s second feature, the acclaimed HBO Films’ STRANGER INSIDE, garnered Dunye an Independent Spirit award nomination for best director in 2002. Dunye’s other works have been included in the Whitney Biennial and screened internationally at festivals in New York,London,Cape Town,Amsterdam, and Sydney.
In 1996, Dunye wrote,directed and starred in her first feature-length film, THE WATERMELON WOMAN. It was awarded the Teddy Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and won Best Feature at OutFest LA, Italy’s Torino,and France’s Creteil Film Festival. THE WATERMELON WOMAN was recently honored as one of three OutFest UCLA Legacy Project films, and granted a pristine 2K remastering for re-release. The film is currently being honored with a series of 20th Anniversary screenings at top-tier festivals such as the Berlinale,OutFest,the San Francisco International Film Festival, and at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dunye has served on the Director’s Guild of America’s Independent Council and on the advisory board for New York’s Independent Film Project’s Gordon Parks Award. She was also a mentor for IFP/West Project Involve,and a board member of Los Angeles OutFest. Presently she is a member of the Board of Directors for the Queer Cultural Center,and sits on the board of Radar Productions,as well as the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project.
In addition,Dunye has received grants from the Astraea Foundation, Frameline, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. She has been honored with the prestigious Anonymous was a Woman Award, as well as a lifetime achievement award from Girlfriend’s Magazine.
Based in Oakland,Dunye is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cinema at San Francisco State University.