COMEDY CLASSIC: “Watermelon Man”
So my friend told me about this movie the other day while we were discussing Blaxploitation flicks, and I hadn’t even heard of it. “You haven’t heard of Watermelon Man?” he said. “Aww man, you gotta watch it.” And so I did.
I was NOT ready.
Watermelon Man is about an obnoxious, racist white man who wakes up one morning to find that he is black. The film came out in 1970 and Melvin Van Peebles directed it; these two facts alone should give you a general idea of what to expect, but I shall continue.
First of all the actor, Godfrey Cambridge, was hilariously convincing as an obnoxious white man. You know the kind that even other white people despise? The overly comfortable, corny joke-telling, in your face, smart ass bigotty type. He’s married with two kids and his “liberal” white wife is essentially bored with their relationship. In other words, he has just enough going against him to make you anticipate his impending fate.
Because this film was directed by Melvin Van Peebles, it didn’t take the stereotypical turns that I would expect from say, a white director. The character is not originally WHITE in BLACKFACE. No. This isn’t Soul Man. And when Cambridge’s character turns black, his penis doesn’t magically enlarge, his accent doesn’t change and he doesn’t become a superstar athlete. No, Mr. Van Peebles wasn’t about to let us go out like that. In fact, the film plays more on white fear of blackness than anything else, which says a lot about the time during which it was made.
I laughed outloud a couple of times during this movie, because some of the one-liners and simple actions are KILLER. When Cambridge’s wife first discovers her new “black” husband after he emerges from an 8 hour shower to try to scrub the blackness off, she asks: “Should I hide the money?” And the main character consistently drinks and BATHES in milk in hopes of turning white again. It is Mr. Van Peebles interpretation of whites’ perspective of blacks that makes this film so funny at some points.
On some technical shit, Watermelon Man is QUITE bootleg. I know it’s the 70s, but Mr. Van Peebles, why is your loud ass, offbeat score overlapping important dialogue? In fact, the score was out of place during SEVERAL parts of the movie and it was distracting as hell. Also funny were some of the odd transitions, camera angles and editing choices. At one particular sequence toward the end, the movie randomly turned into a PSA, with a random, but lyrically relevant song break and big titles interrupting the scene.
Aside from the clear experimentation evident by Mr. Van Peebles throughout this film, I have to say that I actually appreciated the movie. In some ways, the film was ahead of its time. The “white face” make-up, for example, was clearly tapped into by Dave Chappelle and the Wayans Brothers. The ending sequence, as the main character begins to accept his fate as a black man was actually really well done and if I was a movie-goer during this time period, I would definitely appreciate the empowerment.
See this movie if you’re in the mood for a militant laugh.