The Watermelon Woman has recently enjoyed a twentieth year remaster of our deteriorating print, and a twentieth anniversary re-release, commencing at last year’s Berlinale, moving on to MoMA, enjoying a week’s theatrical run at NY’s Metrograph, and now available for purchase. Supported by $31,500 in 1995 by the NEA, the last year the Endowment supported individual filmmakers, it has gone on to be a valued enough piece of American filmmaking that our remaster was supported by film culture stalwarts like the UCLA Film & TV Archive, Outfest, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has remained valued for many things, including its art-world famous “Fae Richards Archive” of 82 images by Zoe Leonard re-enacting the life and contemporaries of our fake star, otherwise known as “the Watermelon Woman”; for its contributions to the sub-genre fake documentaries, of which I am also a scholar; for its place in history as the first African American lesbian feature film; and for its intelligent, disarming, honest depictions of the relations between owning and controlling imaging technologies and history, memory, and truth (also the focus of all of the #100hardtruths I pen).
When it comes to a fixation on lesbian sex, even Howard Stern is a poor second to Pete Hoekstra, a Representative from Michigan. Mr. Hoekstra seems to have a curious obsession with sampling alleged lesbian porn financed by the National Endowment for the Arts. In a January letter to the N.E.A.’s chairman, Jane Alexander, he describes how he executed his solemn duty to watch a movie called The Watermelon Woman after ‘reading a review . . . which stated that [it] had “the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid.”‘ (What paper is the Congressman reading?)
It is true that some recent re-reviews have noted the political artfulness of the depiction of lesbian sex in the film, but everyone knows that salacious sex is not really the film’s primary preoccupation (Dunye’s more heady interests in identity, self-reflexivity, film history, experimental form, and the political power of archives have contributed to its ongoing attention by scholars, as was demonstrated in the recent academic conference that was part of its anniversary). We understood the #hardtruth that bigots used its lesbian sex scene as a smoke screen for their much more prurient commitments to censorship, racism, sexism, and homophobia.
There are many haunting truths to be told about our experiences twenty years ago associated to past efforts to defund the NEA. As is true for many real statements about fake things, I hope our place within a previous generation’s successful defense may be useful for those working today to hold off this administration’s sorry attempts. Some of what actually happened now plays as phony as the claims trotted out against us, but as many of the facts of our place within the history of the annals of the NEA reflect tactics, and players, that stay true to this day: speak truth to power; fight for the right for the least-seen to speak truth to power.
- For the most part, white men were our strongest champions as the Congress used our little picture for bigger aims. Frank Rich wrote on our behalf, and Alex Baldwin spoke for us on the steps of Capitol Hill. Having made a film about black women and lesbians’ lack of access to capital, media, and power, it still came as a shock that Cheryl never got to speak on her own behalf.
- But in the end, a congressional bill to defund the NEA by $31,500—staged as political theater to shame our film, and other attempts of American self-expression—was voted down on the floor of congress due to the simple and true words of one of our strongest champions, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, from Texas. “Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up Dunye’s cause in the Congressional debate, informing House members that ‘I’ve seen the film, and I think Cheryl Dunye is doing a wonderful job. Can we just say we have a difference of opinion?'” (“Can ‘Community Standards’ Apply to ‘Watermelon Woman,‘” 1997).
- The National Endowment for the Arts
- #148milliondollars, Paul Weston
- “Five Best Art World Protests Against Trump,” Ilana Novick
- www.neafunded.us, Tega Brain
- F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner