• film

Reviving and Reviewing the “Race Film”

The Watermelon Woman

Dir. Cheryl Dunye, 1996, 90 min.

Co-presented by Wolf Humanities Center and Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with Lightbox Film Center at International House Philadelphia. This series revisits so-called “race films”: works of independent African American cinema produced from the 1910s to the 1940s. The afterlives of these  flms are manifest in their recurring religious themes, the vexed politics of their preservation and restoration, and their creative in influence on later  filmmakers.


The Watermelon Woman
This “fake documentary” stars the director as a fictionalized version of herself. Dunye plays a Black lesbian filmmaker who, captivated by an elusive, queer 1930s black film actress, decides to make a film about her.

"The movie follows Cheryl, played by Dunye, as she attempts to make a documentary about Faye Richards, better known as the Watermelon Woman: a gay, black 1930s actress whose roles as mammies and housemaids did not do justice to her elusive and complex life. In the process, Cheryl works her day job at a video rental store, begins a relationship with a white woman, and learns more about black women’s history—in film, in the gay community, and in her native Philadelphia—than she ever anticipated.

Dunye’s film is a monument to her own love of black film history, but it is also a look into the ways that we uncover the histories of marginalized people, people who were unable, because of access or because of taboo, to document themselves." - Moira Donegan, The New Republic