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Wry ‘Woman’ Explores Race, Sexuality

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Philadelphia filmmaker Cheryl Dunye has such a light, easy touch both in front and in back of the camera that you’re in danger of not noticing how skillful a craftsman she really is or how deftly she raises serious issues of race and sexual orientation in “The Watermelon Woman.”

Her wry and exhilarating comedy, at once romantic and sharply observant and containing within in it a “mockumentary,” won the audience award at last year’s Outfest, and its opening today at the Nuart provides the occasion for a second look, which serves only to reaffirm the depth and range of Dunye’s talent. (To its advantage, the film has lost about five minutes of running time.)

Dunye, who is making her feature debut with “Watermelon,” more or less plays herself as a vivacious, beautiful young Philadelphia video store employee whose burning ambition to become a filmmaker leads to her determination to make a documentary on a lovely but obscure black actress who appeared in a number of Hollywood films in the ‘30s.

Dunye’s Fae Richards is a fictional woman but is representative of countless African American actors who appeared in both Hollywood and “race” pictures who virtually disappeared without a trace.

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Indeed, in the credits of the film in which Richards first captivates Dunye, Richards is billed simply as “The Watermelon Woman.” (Dunye has simulated this movie and other moments in Richards’ life to perfection.)

As a lesbian, Dunye becomes obsessed with Richards when she discovers that the actress was rumored to have been the lover of the white female director in whose films she frequently appeared.

Dunye has much to express, and she does it with humor, energy, wit, passion and perception. On a personal level, she reflects on how one’s work can undermine both love life and friendships and on her need, as a black lesbian filmmaker, to reclaim whatever heritage she can.

In pursuing the elusive Richards, Dunye calls attention to a wide range of black popular culture that deserves to be rediscovered, reevaluated and enjoyed.

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She reveals how racism can work both ways when her best friend and co-worker, the hearty and tart-tongued Tamara (Valarie Walker, a terrific presence), becomes uptight when Cheryl begins a romance with a gorgeous white woman (Guinevere Turner of “Go Fish”). Tamara is even more exasperated when the video store proprietor hires a young, hip and self-possessed white woman (Shelley Olivier). Along the way, Dunye gets Camille Paglia to say something positive about the movies’ black mammy stereotypes, and even about the symbol of watermelons in black culture.

Dunye has learned how to start on a comic note and become more serious so gradually that we scarcely realize it’s happening. Yet “The Watermelon Woman” never loses its exuberant spirit.

It is ironic that “The Watermelon Woman” last year sparked an ugly National Endowment for the Arts funding debate in Congress over its love scenes, when they are the epitome of discreet eroticism, and they provide more evidence for the old argument that female filmmakers are the supreme sensualists. It is inconceivable that had the actors been of the same race but not the same sex, such a sequence could have caused such a furor.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has some blunt language, considerable talk of racism and lesbianism and a sequence of erotic love-making.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘The Watermelon Woman’

Cheryl Dunye: Cheryl

Valarie Walker: Tamara

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Guinevere Turner: Diana

Lisa Marie Branson: Fae Richards

A First Run Features release. Writer-director Cheryl Dunye. Producers Barry Swimar, Alexandra Juhasz. Executive producer Michael Light. Cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw. Editor and co-executive producer Annie Taylor. Music supervisor Bill Coleman. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Nuart for one week, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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