This article examines the production of Watermelon Man (1970), director Melvin Van Peebles’s only Hollywood film. While the film is often overlooked in scholarly circles in favor of Van Peebles’s more famous Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Watermelon Man demonstrates that degree to which Van Peebles was able to produce a film that was aesthetically and narratively subversive in spite of the studio’s attempts to turn the film into a standard, mainstream comedy. Further, combining historical and theoretical approaches, including details about the film’s production from Van Peebles himself, the article contends that the film provides a link between the worlds of Hollywood and black independent film production. Finally, the article explores the ways that Van Peebles uses conventions of Hollywood filmmaking, including racial stereotypes, to criticize mainstream America’s own racism and Hollywood’s role in maintaining it.
In this essay, I use “African American” to refer to specific individuals or groups, and “black” in reference to cultural products and subject positions.
By “from the inside out,” I am referencing Peebles's own words about criticizing Hollywood while working within the Hollywood studio system.
Tony Gittens, “Cultural Restitution and Independent Black Cinema,” in Black Cinema Aesthetics: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking, ed. Gladstone L. Yearwood (Athens: Center for Afro-American Studies, Ohio University), 117.
Gittens, “Cultural Restitution,” 118.
Gladstone L. Yearwood, “Introduction: Issues in Independent Black Filmmaking,” in Yearwood, ed., Black Cinema Aesthetics, 12.
Christine Acham, Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).
“Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and the Development of Contemporary Black Cinema, with Melvin Van Peebles, St. Clair Bourne, Haile Gerima, and Pearl Bowser,” in Yearwood, ed., Black Cinema Aesthetics, 65.
Later, in 1988, Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer echoed this sentiment, stating: “Where access and opportunism are rationed, so that black films tend to get made only one-at-a-time, each film text is burdened in an inordinate pressure to be ‘representative’ and to act, as a delegate does, as a statement that ‘speaks’ for the black communities as a whole.” Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, “De Margin and De Center,” Screen 24, no. 4 (1988): 2–10.
Lerone Bennet, “The Emancipation Orgasm: Sweetback in Wonderland,” Ebony, September 1971, 107–18.
James Surowiecki and Melvin Van Peebles, “Making It,” Transition 79 (1999): 180.
Joe Angio, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (2005) is a documentary portrait of Van Peebles.
Melvin Van Peebles, introduction to Watermelon Man (Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, 2004), DVD.
The film, also titled Black Like Me (Carl Lerner, 1964), is a drama chronicling a white journalist who goes undercover as a black man to explore racism in the American South.
Written in 1958 and first performed in 1959, Genet's play is a racial satire that involves black actors reenacting the murder of a white women in front of a kangaroo court. Black actors appear in whiteface to portray the white characters; Jean Genet, The Blacks: A Clown Show, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Grove Press, 1994).
For more on the tradition of black actors in whiteface in the theater, see Marvin McAllister, Whiting Up: Whiteface Minstrels and Stage Europeans in African American Performance (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Melvin Van Peebles, discussion with author, home of Melvin Van Peebles, New York, February 22, 2013.
Van Peebles cited the shortened filming time, which is also corroborated by production documents. Production schedule memo, August 26, 1969, William “Billy” Gordon papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA.
“Box Office Analysis” memo, December 17, 1969, Jack Atlas/Joe Ansen, Jack Atlas papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA.
The original title of the film was The Night the Sun Came Out on Happy Hollow Lane, which was the name of the book from which the film was adapted. Production documents also list the working title of the film as Mirror, Mirror. Rehearsal salaries report, August 15, 1969, William “Billy” Gordon papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA.
Van Peebles, discussion with author.
“Advertising Approach” memo, December 17, 1969, Jack Atlas/Joe Ansen, Jack Atlas papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, CA
Van Peebles, discussion with author.
Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004), 437.
Godfrey Cambridge, Ready or Not: Here's Godfrey Cambridge, Epic Records FLM 13101-LP, 1964.
W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folks (Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2008), 12.
Terri Francis, “Cinema on the Lower Frequencies: Black Independent Filmmaking,” Black Camera 22 (2007): 21.
Again, Cambridge's real life plays a key intertextual role here, as his lifelong struggles with weight and dieting were well documented throughout his career; Louie Robinson, “Godfrey Cambridge Wins ‘Battle of Bulges,’ Loses 117 Pounds,” Ebony, October 1967, 160–70.
Van Peebles, discussion with author.
Richard Dyer, The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2002); Richard Dyer, White (London: New York: Routledge, 1997).
Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 26.
Ellison, “Change the Joke,” 108.
Susan Gubar, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5.
Ellison, “Change the Joke,” 109; Gubar, Racechanges, 5.
This type of character—one who does not develop racial consciousness until it is forced upon him by circumstance—would later appear in the form of the main character in Van Peebles's 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Frantz Fanon argues that family structure parallels social structure for whites, allowing white Americans to shift from childhood to adulthood with a minimum of difficulty. He argues that this is not the case for African Americans, and that once the black man enters society, an entirely different set of structural rules apply. Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1982), 188.
Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of African Americans in American Films, 4th ed. (New York: Continuum, 2001), 7.
Joseph McBride, “Stepin Fetchin Talks Back,” Film Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1971): 20–26. In an interview that McBride transcribes, Fetchit states, “I was the first Negro militant.”
Cambridge, Ready or Not.
According to Van Peebles, he told Moreland “don't make it too clear that we're saying ‘fuck you’”; Van Peebles, discussion with author.
W.E.B. DuBois, “Criteria of Negro Art,” WEBDuBois.org, 29, www.webdubois.org/dbCriteriaNArt.html; originally published in The Crisis 32 (October 1926).
Paul Laurence Dunbar and William Dean Howells, Lyrics of Lowly Life (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1896), 167.
“Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song,” 61.
Surowiecki and Van Peebles, “Making It,” 179.
Racquel Gates, “Bringing the Black: Eddie Murphy and African American Humor on Saturday Night Live,” in Saturday Night Live and American TV, ed. Nick Marx, Matt Sienkiewicz, and Ron Becker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).
In 1980, the Director's Guild of America (DGA) established an Ethnic Minority Committee, and later in 1994, the African American Steering Committee, both aimed at increasing the numbers of African Americans working as directors in Hollywood, as well as designed to provide a support and networking system for them. And in 2013, Paris Barclay became the first black president in the history of the Director's Guild of America. See Director's Guild of America, “About the African American Steering Committee,” www.dga.org/The-Guild/Committees/Diversity/African-American.aspx.