Teaching The Watermelon Woman

Maria Pramaggiore


Cheryl Dunye’s groundbreaking 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman served as a staple in my graduate seminar on New Queer Cinema (NQC) for many years at North Carolina State University. This year, I taught the film to undergraduates as part of an academic elective stream (an abbreviated minor) in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Maynooth University in Ireland.  This essay examines learning opportunities and challenges that The Watermelon Woman raises and discusses the way two different cultural contexts have informed my experience of teaching the film.

Setting Dunye’s feature length faux documentary alongside important early queer underground and experimental films, from Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks (1947) and Scorpio Rising (1963) to Barbara Hammer Dyketactics (1970), and initiating a dialogue with other NQC works such as Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992), Marvin Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1991), and Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989) enabled my graduate seminar to directly engage with queer intersectionality. Gathering together this diverse set of texts also allowed us to examine politics and practices of film history, queer and black histories, and media historiography, thus raising methodological and ideological issues that I consider especially important for a graduate course.

Despite its historical importance as a pioneer and emblem of black lesbian cinema, it took a 20 year anniversary restoration and a theatrical re-release in 2016 for the film to receive the international recognition it deserves, with screenings at the Brooklyn Museum and the Berlinale (where the film had won a Teddy Award in 1996), a write-up in the LA Times, and inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection. Only a handful of scholarly sources deal with The Watermelon Woman. I have assigned Laura Sullivan’s Callaloo article,[1] and Stefanie K. Dunning’s book chapter;[2] Frann Michel’s work[3] and Matt Richardson’s[4] article address questions of history and historiography that I consider central to teaching the film. The next time I teach The Watermelon Woman, I will include a recent essay by Clitha Mason, a former student of mine who developed an MA capstone project from her seminar paper for my course. Her excellent article, “Queering The Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman,” appears in Black Camera.[5]

The Watermelon Woman works well as a “teachable” film at both graduate and undergraduate levels because it foregrounds questions of film form in at least two different ways. The first and, for me, the most accessible means of exploring form is through the film’s hybrid status as a fiction feature/faux documentary, a combination that can leave students confused by the film’s conclusion and wondering about the historical existence of Fae Richards/Faith Richardson. A question I ask that typically generates a rigorous discussion is how these formal ambiguities are linked to (and possibly made necessary by) the film’s subject matter: a research project on African American representation that focuses on reclaiming an African American actor but which morphs into a sleuthing mission uncovering hidden queer histories of the 20th century.

The second point I make around the film’s formal interventions shifts the analysis into media technology and historiography. The film’s main character, Cheryl, is played by Dunye, which adds a reflexive element to the film’s essayistic sensibility. She is a videographer who shoots weddings for hire and works in a video store, a sociocultural relic that may require a bit of explanation in the era of streaming platforms. Treating The Watermelon Woman, made for $300,000, as an example of low-budget 1990s “indy prod” focuses discussion and analysis on the ephemeral technology and visual aesthetic of videotape, a topic that remains neglected in contemporary film and media studies, despite Yvonne Spielmann’s excellent book, Video: the Reflexive Medium.[6]

It’s important to consider the social, economic and aesthetic implications of video from our vantage point within a digital ecosystem, where sophisticated software and emerging methodologies such as videographic criticism mean that broadcast quality production techniques are available to both scholars and practitioners (even on mobile phones). This embarrassment of riches influences expectations for low-fi productions, and particularly the abjected video image: too recent a technology to be celebrated like celluloid, and possessing significant visual deficits compared to digital images.  A wholesale rejection of the video aesthetic arises every time I have taught the film; still, I found that my Irish undergraduates, who screened the film in 2017, were far more impatient with the film’s DIY sensibility and intentionally imperfect images (for example, the doubly mediated video images of Fae Richards acting in Plantation Memories) than students in previous years. This attitude may be explained by the age cohort and its lifelong consumption of high quality digital images, but it also seems to me to correspond to a broader cultural resistance that often labels modestly-budgeted Irish films inferior due to their unembellished production values. The other notable difference between the Irish undergraduates’ interpretation of the film and the U.S. graduate students was that the former placed a great deal of emphasis on the gendered attributes of certain characters; Cheryl’s friend Tamara’s pursuit of women was seen as problematically masculine, for example. I attribute this emphasis in part to the fact that the students were viewing the film within the context of their elective stream subject, gender and sexuality. They therefore brought their newly developed skills in analyzing gender dynamics to bear on the sexual politics of the film rather than focusing on “dull” questions of film history. It was useful to address their response to the film’s presentation of diverse modes and practices of lesbian desire.

In discussion, I emphasize students’ frustration with the quality of the video image, attempting to reframe this experience metaphorically and as an analytical tool. The Watermelon Woman repays careful attention to historical and historiographical question that encompass media technologies, visual aesthetics, and the politics of representation, as do many NQC films whose form and production values defy expectations. (The other notable example of this in my NQC course has been Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures [1964], which inevitably elicits negative responses from a few students who treat its deliberate narrative and sonic experiments as accidents that insult their intelligence and aesthetic acumen.) The Watermelon Woman’s direct address, low-fi production values, DIY sensibility and video-centric aesthetic all seem to grant license to students to dismiss the film as a diary film or home movie. I ask students to consider and critically analyze NQC as a movement in the context of film historical movements such as Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave and to attend to the politics of inclusion and exclusion on grounds of style and subject matter. We tease out some implications of queer interventions in film form—visual unpleasure, confusion, graphic or provocative content, the embrace of the perverse—and also consider racial and gendered power in the context of film production budgets; these two areas will be revisited throughout the semester.

The topic that has emerged from teaching The Watermelon Woman that interests me the most as a film scholar relates to Cheryl’s research process, and, in particular, her formal and informal forays into queer and African American media archives. This cluster of concerns makes the film ideal for a graduate seminar because it defamiliarizes academic research and resituates intellectual curiosity outside the formal classroom. Cheryl’s research methods are linked to her video store job, which provides her access to films. Her project is animated by her personal interest in African American media history: she becomes curious about Fae Richards after seeing several plantation films. Initially, her informants and archival resources are known to her and local—they include her mother, her family friend Shirley, and Lee Edwards, an amateur collector of African American film memorabilia. When Cheryl visits official archives such as a university library and the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology (CLIT)—a parodic send-up of the Lesbian Herstory Archives–The Watermelon Woman makes it clear that queer black women’s lives and stories are nowhere officially archived, as they fall outside and/or between the recognized historical categories of women’s history, LGBT history and African American history. The seemingly imperfect conclusion to the film—in that all the questions Cheryl has raised about Fae cannot definitively be answered—underscores for students at every level the implicit and explicit biases of archives and thus lays the groundwork for a critical and independent approach to media research and scholarly research in general. This is an important lesson for students in the digital age, who may labor under the misconception that information about all historical subjects is easily accessed and free flowing. Thus, this personal, comedic, “breezy” lesbian film, as Stephen Holden called it, offers profound insights into the research process and film historiography.[7]


Maria Pramaggiore is a Professor of Media Studies and Dean of Graduate Studies at Maynooth University in Co. Kildare, Ireland.  She is currently co-editing a collection entitled Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary with Bella Honess Roe and co-editing a special issue of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media on Queer Media Temporalities with Páraic Kerrigan. The fourth edition of the textbook Film: A Critical Introduction, co-authored with Tom Wallis, will appear in 2018.



[1] Laura Sullivan, “Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian possibility,” Callaloo 23.1 (Winter 2000): 448-60.

[2] Stefanie K. Dunning, “She’s a B(u)tch: Centering Blackness in The Watermelon Woman,” in Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same Sex Desire and Contemporary African American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009).

[3] Frann Michel, “Eating the (M)Other: Cheryl Dunye’s Feature Films and Black Matrilineage,” Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 14 (Summer 2007).

[4] Matt Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman,Black Camera 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 100-113.

[5] Clitha Mason, “Queering The Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman,” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 50-74.

[6] Yvonne Spielmann, Video: The Reflexive Medium (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010).

[7] Stephen Holden, “On Black Films and Breezy Lesbians,” The New York Times, March 5, 1997. Retrieved 18 November 2017.


The Cine-Files, issue 13 (fall 2017)