Cheryl Dunye (b. 1966) is an academic and
filmmaker, whose work focuses on issues of sexuality and race, particularly
those surrounding the lives of black lesbians. She currently teaches at San
Francisco State University.
Her 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman, has made history
by being the first full-length feature film directed and written by a black
lesbian about the subject. Another film, Stranger
Inside, focuses on the experiences of African-American lesbians in prison.
She has won numerous awards for her work, particularly in recognition of their
promotion of LGBT themes.
Happy Black History Month! Every day this February, we’re paying tribute to some remarkable performances by both legendary and underrated black actresses.
Today’s spotlighted performer is Cheryl Dunye, who in 1996 played a fictionalized version of herself in her own film, The Watermelon Woman. Dunye’s charisma is loose and spontaneous, containing all the self-assurance of a natural born star. Dunye, who also wrote, helmed, and edited, elicits real spark from costars and drives her radical act of historical invention to glory.
There are bits and pieces of all my life on the screen, and that’s the only way to make a movie like the type of films that I make. Queer filmmaking has moved away from that, maybe it’s moving back to it a little bit with younger folks, and especially with trans identities, queer trans identities, we’re starting to see a freshness. We’re starting to see the secret club that you want to be a part of.
Directed by Cheryl Dunye
The Watermelon Woman,1996
Guinevere Turner, left, and Cheryl Dunye in Ms. Dunye’s 1996 film, “The Watermelon Woman.” In focusing on a fictional past, the movie shines a light on the race films made after World War I and through the 1940s
6. Queen Sugar: “To Usward,” directed by Cheryl Dunye, cinematography by Kira Kelly
Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) spends a lot of Queen Sugar talking about politics. She’s a journalist and an activist, so that’s her job; she’s also a human being in 2017, so what else do you expect? In the second episode of the season, she’s hosting a Bail Fund rally, decrying “men and women locked up for no other reason than because they’re poor and black.” The rally is peaceful, and it is surrounded on all apparent sides by policemen. “These police officers, they’re trying to intimidate us,” says Nova. “They want us to fear them. But we’re not afraid.”
Queen Sugar is most recognizably a multi-generational soap opera, every member of the Bordelon family sprawling through their own subplots, a new factory and a new farm and one ex-husband is a basketball star. The drama runs hot. So, of course, Nova’s nephew Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) wanders into the rally. He’s skipping school for the day; he just experienced police brutality firsthand, a plot point that reveals itself only later in the season. But I’m not sure you need that story context to understand what he’s feeling. Nova runs over to her nephew, knowing he’s in a bad place, and hugs him close. “It’s gonna be okay,” she says, the lights from the police cars blinking red and blue on her face.
You could interpret a few different things about this moment, could say that Queen Sugar is tackling “the issues.” The series has a lot on its mind — Katrina and Trump, the struggles of the family farmer — and it finds a lot of time for sex, dramatic twists, romances sparking and flaring out. In this shot, it caught something gigantic about America right now: The cosmic fear and the feeling of real community, aunt and nephew staring Janus-faced to the bleak past and the possibility of a not-much-different future.