Rated R. Get ready for feathers to be ruffled. The formal reason it probably got the R rating is the nudity and sexuality. You can't really fight that with an R rating. But I also got the vibe that this movie would have gotten the R rating regardless of that scene is the fact that it very frankly talks about race, throwing all of White America under the bus. People don't like that, so let's make it harder to see. Regardless, R.
DIRECTOR: Melvin Van Peebles
Sometimes, it's really rad when I read other articles on a movie. Again, like with Infernal Affairs, I stumbled across an article while looking for a picture. Because I'm fried and don't want to write, I decided to procrastinate a bit. The tagline of this movie was something along the lines of "It won't happen to you, so you are allowed to laugh." Geez, Melvin Van Peebles doesn't pull punches. I know, I'm getting closer and closer to Sweet Sweetback, so I better strap in if I thought that Watermelon Man was as hard as it could hit.
Originally, I wasn't going to write about the elephant in the room. I thought that we had come farther as a people than having to address the fact that Whiteface is not offensive. But we do. It's January 6 and I'm in a low place, reminding myself that we, as a people, might be doomed. It's not offensive. This is a genuine criticism of power structure and refuses to pull punches. If you know me in real life, please have this conversation with me. Because I'm a fragile liberal, I might leave the conversation shaking or crying. Sorry for having emotions. (Golly, this blog has gotten too emo.)
I feel bad that I didn't watch Watermelon Man in ideal conditions because this movie is a trip. It's maybe one of the most bizarre tones I've seen in a movie. It has all of the benchmarks of a raucous almost family comedy. After coming back from The Story of a Three Day Pass, something that screams independent cinema and New Wave, Watermelon Man is this film that just about follows all of the rules of cinema that's marketed to the masses with having none of the content invovled. Do you know what I didn't expect in my criticism of Western Civilization? Zaniness. It's the most zany film that ever existed. Anyone else making this movie, it would be considered tongue-in-cheek and would have rotted with history. Honestly, I can see Mel Brooks making this movie. Not Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks (although, KIND OF Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks). I'm talking about High Anxiety Mel Brooks. If anyone else made this movie, there would be something disposable about it. Because it looks like the movie's intention is to make you laugh like a raucous comedy, similar to something like Liar Liar. But the truth is, you're laughing because things are truly messed up.
It's laughing at the dumpster fire that we've created at society. And you know the main target of the movie? It's not the Jeff Gerbers of the world. It's not the people who are active racists. Yeah, they get their comeuppance. And sure, casual and conscious racists are the worst. But those people aren't going to change based on this movie. It's me. Hi, I'm White America who thinks that he's sooooo progressive and has everything figured out. I say the right thing at the right time. Heck, you have this blog as evidence that I'm progressive as heck, despite my wandering thoughts during 13th, where my conservative institutional racism crept in. This very paragraph, where I too throw myself under the bus, is just evidence for my forward thinking and how I should be "one of the good ones." Nah, Watermelon Man doesn't care. (Man, he sounds like a superhero when I write it like that. The Punisher of casual racism.) Yeah, I'm the one who has to change. But the problem is that Watermelon Man doesn't believe I can change. Like the early days of Malcolm X, White America is too far to save. And there might be a point there.
Althea Gerber starts off the movie as the best of us. She watches the news. She wants to get involved in the civil rights movement. She knows that America has been the home of racism as long as it has existed. (Hey, calm down. I get that other people are racists too. We're just really good at showing off our racism.) Everything's cool until Jeff actually turns Black. There's something to unpack there. Knee-jerk, she's secretly afraid of Black people. That's absolutely true and I can't deny it. But Jeff turning Black is reflective more on who she is. She was the good one in the marriage. She defined her goodness compared to racist Jeff, who kept saying awful things thinking that he was funny or charming. But when Jeff becomes the very thing that he disregarded, she has no sense of truth anymore. After all, it's Jeff getting arrested for a cause. He's the one who is mad because he's not getting basic rights that should be protected. And when she is the one who doesn't have the moral high horse anymore, she kind of falls apart. She doesn't know how to define herself in Jeff's shadow.
There's a good chance that the majority of this blog is going to be about Althea. It's not that I don't care about Jeff. (I actually will probably talk about Erica. I think her name is Erica, the Norse or Swedish secretary.) Althea is probably the most grounded element of the movie and potentially the most haunting. Okay, she's the most haunting for me because she acts as my avatar. What's really odd is that Althea never goes full-blown stereotypically racist. Oh, she's exposed as a racist. No denying that. But Althea can't define herself. When she leaves Jeff, it's not because things are bad. They are bad. She's being harassed by the Klan over the phone with threats day and night. But it's when she rejects Jeff sexually that she realizes something about herself that's awful. Up to this point, Althea is the one who has been ensuring that their marriage has a sexual component to it. I never get the idea that she is attracted to her husband, but wants to be close to her husband, as narrow-minded as he might be. But the idea of having sex with a Black man, regardless of relationship or marriage, is abhorrent. It's the idea that we think we're these people and that superficial things wouldn't matter. But Althea in that moment makes the choice to leave her husband.
But when that phone call comes, both Althea and Jeff have this conversation that is perfectly amicable. I mean, Althea is filled with regret. That's what's telling. Her side of the conversation is the kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. But more importantly, she doesn't want to make amends for it. I can't believe the English teacher in me is going to scream as loud as it does in this moment, but it's Claudius at confession in Hamlet. Claudius confesses all his crimes and laments the murder of his brother. But the one thing that he cannot do is change the results of that. The consequences of killing King Hamlet involve holding the throne and keeping his wife. As sad as he is about the action of murder, he is not so sad that he'll deal with the consequences of his actions. The same is true with Althea. Althea is sorry that she left Jeff in this moment of crisis, but doesn't return to him. She refuses to live in the apartment with a Black man. Heck, it even seems like she would probably be okay in the apartment if it came to her reasoning. Jeff lives outside of the suburbs now. He's not in an all-White neighborhood. I imagine that interracial marriage is probably tolerated where they would be living. So it's not about the location; it's about Jeff.
There's also something sexual about race in Watermelon Man. The movie addresses the obvious stereotype and puts it behind it quickly. But I'm talking about Althea's thoughts about sex being the straw that breaks the camel's back when she leaves. This is juxtaposed with Jeff's relationship with Erica. (Again, I apologize if I have the wrong character. I've established that I should have written this closer to having watched it.) If some progressives find Black people tolerable up to the point where they consider themselves fully sexual people, the antithesis is also a problem. Erica, who seems to be the most cool with Jeff being a Black man, only likes this change because she fetishizes Jeff's skin color. Jeff kind of gets it in that moment, which is really telling of his character. Erica doesn't see Jeff's Blackness as part of his being. It is a trait. It is something that is visibly appealing, but it divorces Jeff's skin from his personhood. Jeff, for a lot of this movie, doesn't make the connection that being Black is more than just visual appearance. He may joke about a lot of things when it comes to the Black experience, but he doesn't adopt the meaning of those things until post-coital discussion with Erica. It's interesting, because Jeff can only make that shift into the Black experience of Invisibility. This is where you start citing Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, reader. I'm not going to do the heavy lifting for you. I already used Hamlet as evidence.
It's such a weird movie. Visually, I've seen a million movies that look and sound like this movie. But this thing is subversive as heck. It's a sledgehammer disguised as cotton candy. Is it fun to watch? Not especially. I mean, it's fine. One thing about satire is that sometimes the jokes don't need to land. It's kind of why retro-episodes of TV shows don't always work. Watermelon Man acts as both satire and parody. The satire is commenting on White culture's failure to stop racism and the continual surpression of Black power. But the parody is of zany family films of the '60s. Even if the corny jokes don't always work independently, the parody of one of those jokes landing flat actually might be a better form of parody than if they destroyed.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.