Pride on Stage: Cheryl Dunye

Episode Summary

Cheryl Dunye (1966-present) was the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film. The movie, called The Watermelon Woman, established her as a leading voice in the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990’s.

Episode Notes

Cheryl Dunye (1966-present) was the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film. The movie, called The Watermelon Woman, established her as a leading voice in the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990’s.

Special thanks to our exclusive Pride Month sponsor, Mercedes-Benz! Mercedes-Benz continues to support and stand with the LGBTQIA+ community. Listen all month long as we celebrate women whose authentic expression in their lives and bodies of work have expanded the norms of gender and sexuality in the performing arts.

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Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know–but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more.  Womanica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Womanica.

This month, we’re highlighting queer stars of the stage and screen: women who expanded the norms of gender and sexuality behind the scenes and in the limelight.

Today, we’re talking about the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film. The movie, called The Watermelon Woman, established her as a leading voice in the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990’s. Let’s talk about Cheryl Dunye.

Cheryl was born on May 13, 1966 in Monrovia, Liberia, and grew up in Philadelphia. Before becoming a filmmaker, Cheryl was enrolled in a political theory program at Michigan State. But after realizing the program wasn’t for her, she moved to Temple University, where she ended up studying film.

Cheryl started to wonder if she could use filmmaking as a political tool to bring about change. The opportunity presented itself when Cheryl heard the author and poet Sapphire read her poem Wild Thing, which was about the Central Park 5. Cheryl recorded Sapphire reading the poem, then overlaid Sapphire’s voice onto a video collage, with images from newspapers and other clips that Cheryl had filmed. 

The resulting short film was a hit - and it convinced Cheryl that she could use her movies to make political statements. Cheryl graduated from Temple University, then received an MFA from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts.  She also kept making short films. 

Then, in 1993, while researching film archives, Cheryl realized that many Black actresses in early films were left out of the credits - leaving them out of film history. Cheryl wanted to change that. So she created and directed her film, The Watermelon Woman. 

The Watermelon Woman centers around the life of a documentary filmmaker named Cheryl - who is played by Cheryl herself. In the movie, Cheryl comes across a film called ‘Plantation Memories’, which features a Black woman listed in the credits only as ‘Watermelon Woman’. So Cheryl embarks on a journey to discover who the Watermelon Woman is. 

The film, which is shot like a documentary but contains fictional elements, was a groundbreaking blend of fiction and reality. It was also a rare representation of the Black lesbian experience. Cheryl later said of the movie: “I wanted to put people in the film that I saw in my world.” 

In 2002, Cheryl released her second feature film, Stranger Inside, which focuses on the stories of incarcerated women. For that film, Cheryl did extensive research - including hosting a screenwriting workshop with a group of twelve incarcerated women.

Over the next decade, Cheryl continued making films, as well as teaching film in schools across the country. To date, she has made over 15 films - all centered on themes of race, sexuality, and gender. In 2016, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of Filmmaking. 

Then, in 2017, Cheryl made her first foray into the world of television, directing two episodes of the show Queen Sugar. Afterwards, she directed many more TV episodes  -  including for the shows Claws, Dear White People, and All Rise. She also directed an episode of HBOs Lovecraft Country that was nominated for an NAACP image award. 

In 2019, Cheryl founded Jingletown Films, a company focused on giving a platform to underrepresented storytellers. And right now, Cheryl and Jingletown films are working to produce The Gilda Stories, an afrofuturist TV series that follows an formerly enslaved Black, bisexual vampire who comes of age over the course of 200 years of American history. 

Today, Cheryl’s first film The Watermelon Woman is widely considered a classic. Her voice has left a lasting mark on the world of film and television - and there’s still more to come.

All month, we’re talking about queer stars of the stage and screen. 

For more information, find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. Talk to you tomorrow!