We see in the New Queer films of the 1980s and ’90s an increasing awareness of the racial politics of gay and lesbian life. To a greater extent than Looking for Langston and Go Fish, the latter of which it explicitly references (in part by casting its leading lady, Guinevere Turner, as the main character’s love interest), Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1997) is sharply attuned to the ways in which issues of racial identity cut through queer communities and present particular challenges to interracial relationships. In this, The Watermelon Woman thankfully disabuses audiences of the notion that lesbian subculture is a multi-culti utopia in which women of all colors sit around holding hands and celebrating their solidarity. The film is structured around two interracial lesbian relationships, one unfolding in the present between Dunye (playing a character modeled on herself) and Turner, the other a long-forgotten romance between a 1930s Hollywood filmmaker named Martha Paige and a black actress named Fae Richards, better known as “The Watermelon Woman.” Dunye’s film centers on her attempt to make a documentary film about Richards’ life and career; Richards is an imaginary figure, but she’s modeled after such real-life actresses as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who spent the majority of their careers in Hollywood playing maids and servants. (Dunye mocks up an astonishing array of fake movie clips, publicity stills, and "period" photographs from Richards' career; see above.)
In the course of her research, Dunye tracks down Fae Richards’ surviving partner as well as Martha Paige’s sister, both of whom voice resistance to the project. Paige’s sister refuses to admit that Paige had been Richards’ lover (“my sister was not that kind of woman!”) while Richards’ partner castigates Dunye for memorializing Richards’ career, telling her, “I think it troubled [Fae’s] soul for the world to see her in those Mammy pictures.” Dunye responds by insisting that Richards’ films resonate with her in an intensely personal way that deserves to be acknowledged and explored. “The moments she shared with you, the life she had with Martha on and off the screen—those are precious moments, and nobody can change that,” she tells her. “What she means to me, a 25-year-old black woman, means something else. It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility. It means history.”
Looking for Langston, The Watermelon Woman and Barbara Hammer’s History Lessons (about which more later) each reveal an investment in excavating gay and lesbian history and memorializing it before it disappears—even if that means re-opening old wounds, as Dunye does in her investigation into the life of her subject Fae Richards. What’s striking about The Watermelon Woman is its insistence on the value of this history in spite of the shame or discomfort it often stirs up. Dunye answers back to those who claim that the racism and homophobia of America’s past is better left forgotten, arguing that it must be re-encountered, documented, and re-valued if it is to be understood.