Pride Month in 2020 has been loaded with activism, education, and discussion regarding Queer Black people, and an essential name to be added to this discourse is that of Cheryl Dunye. When I watched The Watermelon Woman — the first movie where a Black lesbian directed and starred — it felt like home. Never before had I seen a movie that not only allowed Black women to play the dozens, squabbling in that familiar Black way, but also to put their lesbianism at the forefront without it succumbing to whitewashed generalizations that erase its Blackness.
In the opening scene of The Watermelon Woman, we see Cheryl and Tamara working a wedding for a White family. White people make up a majority of the guest list, but there is also a small group Black men donning suits, as well as a single Black woman. They remain silent, but the shots pointedly focus on the wedding party, making it apparent who maintains the majority of those in attendance. In this environment, the wedding party ends up blending in with one another. In contrast, firmly posited into their Black, lesbian, and working class identities, Cheryl and Tamara immediately stand out.
The subtle definition of both the racial and class divides depicted at the start of the film serves as an avenue for Dunye to ensure that Cheryl and Tamara are at the forefront of this mockumentary. It permits the viewer to take liberties with fictionalizing their lives and status, while also rooting it in their blatant reality as working-class Black lesbians. Cheryl’s obsession with researching the “Watermelon Woman,” the fictional Fae Richards, a Black mammy figure in a 1930s film, mirrors the experience of Black lesbians watching Dunye’s own film of the same name. The Watermelon Woman was made two years before I was born, so watching it feels like discovering an artifact, and the remastered version (found for free on the Criterion Channel until the end of June) reminds me that my own history, and the modern LGBTQ+ community, is not disconnected or exiled by time from the Queer experience of the past. But most of all, it evokes the fact that Black lesbians in particular still have not been able to claim the attention they deserve.
In his book, Black Bodies, White Gazes, George Yancy writes about the ways that Blackness is defined by whiteness. Blackness, and the scrutinizing eyes with which it is viewed, has become reliant on the white gaze. He writes, “the corporeal integrity of my Black body undergoes an onslaught as the white imaginary, which centuries of white hegemony have structured and shaped… I feel ‘external,’ as it were, to my body, delivered and sealed in white lies.” Yancy’s words are especially evocative in the film as the camera’s lens acts as a way to define the people on screen. In The Watermelon Woman, the setting is a place full of Black people, with White people only acting as extras or fulfilling the role of being foils to the narrative’s primary focus on Black characters. Whether it’s people in line for the produce truck; other lesbians at the nightclub, purposely existing on the edges of the frame; Annie, their White, presumably lesbian co-worker; or Diana, Cheryl’s girlfriend who is often seen in glimpses, rather than existing as a main facet of Cheryl’s overarching story, sidelining Whiteness as a means to amplify the Black lesbian experience is integral to the film.
This thematic focus is also apparent in her series of shorts. In Vanilla Sex, she tackles the separation of the practices and understanding of lesbianism between Black and White lesbians. For White lesbians, vanilla referred to the practice of having sex without kinks or toys; for Black lesbians, it was a marker of having sex with White women. Vanilla Sex puts this popular term into question and actively ‘others’ the white lesbian definition, as is often done to Blackness in any other context. Dunye flips this expectation of ‘normalcy’ around a community’s term, puts the oppressed perspective in the vanguard, and demonstrates that there isn’t a universal lesbian experience — Blackness will always be an innate part of a Black lesbian’s sexual identity. She does the same in Potluck and the Passion, a short that aims to exhibit the dynamic nature of lesbians, as well as investigate the interrogations that Black lesbians face from not only others, but themselves as well.
Dunye’s signature dry wit comes into play when they all mispronounce the name of Megan, the only White woman at the party, flipping the script by alienating the only woman there who was not of color. In fact, Megan comes to the party with her date, Tracy, who ends up having her Blackness challenged by Evelyn, another guest, who spends the night talking about the various Black cultural groups she is a part of. As the night progresses, this plotline stands out as Tracy ends up finding much more in common with Evelyn, much to Megan’s disdain, as she is clearly only dating Tracy as a way to gain cultural capital. Potluck and the Passion puts white lesbians in the periphery, highlighting the love of Cheryl and Gail, and eventually, Evelyn and Tracy. There is a constant tension within the Black members of the LGBTQ+ community, but Megan demonstrates how White members often attempt to absolve themselves from their Whiteness through their queerness, undermining the Black experience in the process, as Black lesbians find themselves at the intersection of gender, sexual, and racial oppression.
There is an importance in making seemingly mundane everyday happenings of Black lesbian life the main plot of Dunye’s work. She Don’t Fade is a prime example. It starts with a white woman who introduces the plot, saying the film might feel familiar because it “might even be your life.” This is what makes Dunye’s films so exalting: they are displays of our lives. For once, we have a Black lesbian telling her story without the interruption or intrusion of a white narrative that attempts to universalize the inherently varied lesbian experience. This is similar to Janine, another one of her shorts, in which has Cheryl recounts a story of her relationship with a White classmate. Cheryl takes charge of the narrative, projecting her own voice and eliminating the need for any outside input. She refers to Janine as the “epitome of Whiteness” as she is the White, wealthy, and blonde antithesis to Cheryl. Again, using a mockumentary style of filmmaking, Dunye creates a new space in which the Black working-class lesbian narrative is the preferred point of view. Janine is reduced to old photographs interpolated throughout Cheryl’s shots of speaking directly to the camera as she takes authority over her identity and experience in maneuvering racial and queer tension.
Dunye’s signature mockumentary style, involving breaking the fourth wall as a device of further explanation, reads as an invitation to understand Black lesbians in real-life — to hear the chronicles of their experience from their own mouths. These plots may be fictionalized, but the characters are representative of very real people who refuse to be held within one stereotype and trope that shadows them from the rest of the community in an effort to closet their Blackness.
“While I recognize the historical power of the white gaze, a perspective that carries the weight of white racist history and everyday encounters of spoken and unspoken anti-Black racism, I do not seek white recognition, that is, the white woman’s recognition…I am not dependent upon her recognition…Rather, my preference is suggestive of my hope of a radically different world.”
– George Yancy, “Black Bodies, White Gazes”
The reclamation of the Black lesbian narrative is not just what Cheryl Dunye strives for in her films, it’s what she accomplishes. Dunye creates a radically different world in which Black lesbians have an autonomous voice and storyline. Her movies do not ask for permission from the White gaze or attempt to include explicitly White-driven narratives as guidance, but instead, exist entirely independently. Her only dependence lies in being loyal to representing herself and other Black lesbians who abandon the persistent idea that lesbianism is synonymous with Whiteness. Dunye is distinctly unique in this way, founding her style of films in honor of Black lesbians who build worlds where our stories are equally paramount to the others within the LGBTQ+ community at large.