Cheryl Dunye: Documenting lesbian history
Filmmaker, actress, and director Cheryl Dunye is regarded as one of the 1990’s “queer new wave” of young film and and video makers, documenting both the present and the history of lesbians.
While she’s done over 15 films since then, her debut film, “The Watermelon Woman,” was the work that placed her in the forefront of the said wave.
The first ever African-American lesbian feature film, it won the Teddy at the Berlinale and an Audience Award at L.A. Outfest in 1996.
This same work that she wrote, directed, and acted in was then restored by OutFest’s UCLA Legacy Project for its 20th anniversary.
Cheryl Dunye: Finding herself through film
Born on 13 May 1966 in Monrovia, Liberia, Dunye grew up in Philadelphia to an African father and an African-American mother. Because of this, she usually calls herself an “African-African-American.”
She initially went to Michigan State University to play rugby. However, she went to discover herself and took up different classes, from filmmaking to African-American studies to yoga.
She got her BA from Temple University and her MFA from Rutger’s Mason Gross School of Art.
In 1992, she was the recipient of the Art Matters, Inc. Fellowship and the next year, her work was included in the 1993 Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
She went on to teach at the following schools like the University of California in Los Angeles, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and San Francisco State University.
She began making short films in 1990, like the documentary “Greetings from Africa” (1994), which was featured at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
Cheryl Dunye documents the history of black lesbians
In 1996, she created full-length feature film, “The Watermelon Woman,” because she wanted to tell the story of black actresses in early films while doing research for a class on black film history.
Because most of these women were left out of film, she thought of making a film about creating a story for these black women, referencing the black lesbian actress Fae Richards who played archetypal mammy roles in the 1940s.
She did a lot of research on this movie in the pre-Google era, looking into the archives of the Center for Lesbian Info and Technology (LIT) and talked to people who knew Richards, who was a lesbian and lived in Philadelphia.
Dunye played a fictional 20-something lesbian character of herself in the same movie in order to blur the line between fiction and real life.
However, the history of Richards in the movie was made up, with the credits of the faux-documentary detailing: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”
Dunye said: “Some people believe it was real, which is incredible to me. That sense of who was my community at that time and still is, if they’re still alive, is beautiful.”
Cheryl Dunye on filmmaking and creating history
Speaking to Lenny Letter on the film’s anniversary, she also said: “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.”
“Making cinema allows you to do those experiments. Making movies doesn’t. Making movies says you have to do it this way, that way, marketing, whatever. We’re really going to go for this, cut this out. Cinema says, “OK, go ahead”,” she added.
Speaking to Interview Magazine, she noted that, “I did look for a black lesbian in Hollywood with this story. I did do that as my research for the film, for a year. What I found was nothing. So, I had to tell that truth.”
“I think that’s where the film gets its real depth. You can see this protagonist doing this whole thing. The plot and the story end, but this is a truth,” she pointed out.
Currently, Dunye is working as a Professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University and doing more feature films.
She is a single mother of two children.