A Requiem For Black Queer Representation: ‘Watermelon Woman’ Turns 22 Years Old

This film explores black queerness in an unprecedented way, through the lens of a queer black woman.

In South Africa, I watched Ellen everyday and had all ten seasons of “Friends” on DVD. When immigrated to America, I was excited to immerse myself in pop culture and binge on decades of music, film, and television. 

I fell in love with many art forms, but I noticed that women were almost always spoken for. Living at the intersection of so many identities means never truly feeling seen. It means picking and choosing which parts of yourself you’ll throw away to find some semblance of representation. And as I explored American cultural classics, it was disheartening how little was being done to create images of girls and women that puts value on their innocence, their youth, and their personal growth.

From having more women behind the camera, to creating more nuanced roles for marginalized folks, representation is a persistent problem that we are still struggling to remedy today. The people who have historically controlled the means of production in entertainment– cis straight white men– are still refusing to make space for the “other” that they continue to misrepresent.

Without a systematic shift in who makes decisions and who green lights and funds projects, the voices of people who’ve been systematically stifled will continue to be heard through muffled echoes, filtered only to fit the narrative of those in charge. Tasking straight white men to tell meaningful and nuanced stories about people of color and women and LGBTQ+ folks is deeply irresponsible. It leads to stories either full of stereotypes or it panders so much that it becomes a parody of itself.

One film that comes to mind when I think of an accurate portrayal of black queer experience is Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film “The Watermelon Woman.” The film explores black queerness in an unprecedented way: through the lens of a queer black woman. Dunye wrote, directed and starred in the movie, which follows Cheryl, a young lesbian filmmaker trying to discover information about a black 1930s actress billed as The Watermelon Woman. It was the first feature film to be directed by a black lesbian. Not only is the film a criticism of the omission of black actors in film history, but it’s a criticism represented through a multifaceted lens that includes queerness and womanhood as well as blackness.

The film also explores queer friendships and interracial dating. Cheryl’s love interest in the film is played by dyke film icon Guinevere Turner. Turner plays Diana, a white lesbian with a history of dating black men and women, who’s obsessed with telling people she was born in Jamaica. This film came out 20 years ago and I still know so many Diana archetypes. The fact that Dunye’s film had room to address fetishism, room to make a simple story about all these complex issues, is to her credit as a filmmaker and storyteller.

Photo by Watermelon Woman

My personal favorite slant of the film is Cheryl’s gender expression. She wears big baggy shirts but also short floral dresses. She has a shaved head and wears no makeup but has on hoop earrings all the time. When it comes to masculinity and femininity, she chooses both. Seeing her make the choice to experiment with gender expression– and not have it be tragic and heart wrenching– was so profoundly validating.

Figuring out your identity takes more than just yourself, it takes more than your experiences and how you deal with them. It expands to how you see yourself reflected in the world. And baby queers all over the world deal with the same scary, exciting and amazing experience of finding out how they fit into the LGBTQ+ community. To help, there’s media, music, and other out people. Just like “The Watermelon Woman” helped me. But we deserve more pop culture that reflects us– we deserve to be pulled out into the mainstream and spotlit for everyone to see.

Photo by Watermelon Woman

The concept of coming out is arbitrary, it’s a product of heterosexism, but I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been to understand who I was without the ability to see it “The Watermelon Woman.” It’s hard to realize that you are something you can’t see, and something you can’t name. Visibility is one of the best ways of demystifying the fear and hatred that people ascribe to difference. Dunye’s film is the perfect token of queer black visibility.

And 22 years after it’s February 1996 release, Dunye’s film is still the perfect token of queer black visibility. Here’s to more in the future.