The Watermelon Woman at the 2016 SF Film Festival

Cheryl Dunye plays a version of herself in this witty, nimble landmark of New Queer Cinema, restored for its 20th anniversary. A video store clerk and fledgling filmmaker, Cheryl becomes obsessed with the “most beautiful mammy,” a character she sees in a 1930s movie. Determined to find out who the actress she knows only as the “Watermelon Woman” was and make her the subject of a documentary, she starts researching and is bowled over to discover that not only was Fae Richards (Lisa Marie Bronson) a fellow Philadelphian but also a lesbian. The project is not without drama as Cheryl’s singular focus causes friction between her and her friend Tamara (Valarie Walker) and as she begins to see parallels between Fae’s problematic relationship with a white director and her own budding romance with white Diana (fellow filmmaker Guinevere Turner). Interviews with her own mother, Irene, and cultural critic Camille Paglia, along with Dunye’s own direct address of the camera and a survey of what were once Depression-era nightspots further the non-fiction conceit in a film that uses the mockumentary format to unpack LGBT, Philadelphia and Black history. Complete with grainy clips and stills from movies that never were, The Watermelon Woman—winner of the Teddy Award at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival— is social critique at its most charming and audacious. —Pam Grady

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