During Black History Month, we are taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the many incredible Black woman artists that we know and love. Our next artist is the incredible Cheryl Dunye!
Cheryl Dunye is a Liberian-American film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor. She is best known for her 1996 film Watermelon Woman. As a Black lesbian herself, Cheryl incorporates her own identity into her work, centering around themes of race, sexuality, and gender.
Cheryl studied film at Temple University, with the intention of using her filmmaking as a tool for her political activism. After school, her first works were a series of six short films, formed into a collection aptly named The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye (1990-1994).
These films explored Cheryl’s experiences as a Black lesbian, and as she was working with a low budget, Cheryl worked with the same cast members for all six films, and even acted in them herself. The repetition of actors in all of the films ended up having narrative significance; FF2 Contributor Amelie Lasker says, “The same actors appear under new character names, but making the same mistakes. Dunye’s characters feel like they evolve continuously: from the newly out lesbian Cheryl reflecting on a high school friendship, to Shae, who is exploring dating after a heartbreak, to a socialite celebrating an anniversary with a serious partner.”
The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye were the start of a number of films now known as “Dunyementaries,” or in other words, films that incorporated documentary-style clips from Cheryl’s real life, as well as pieces of narratives created by her.
Among these films was Janine (1990), the story of a relationship between two high-school girls, one Black, and one white. The film documents the ways in which loving a privileged white person affected Cheryl’s own identity as a teenager. Combining the ability to depict truth with a narrative and the vulnerability of filming parts of one’s own life, Cheryl’s Dunyementaries are extremely raw and truthful explorations of what it means to be a queer Black woman.
Cheryl’s Dunyementaries are extremely raw and truthful explorations of what it means to be a queer Black woman.
The Watermelon Woman (1996) was Cheryl’s first feature film. With it, she became the first out Black lesbian to direct a feature film. Like her other films, The Watermelon Woman combines documentary and narrative filmmaking, but in a new way. Though the film is a narrative feature, its protagonist is strongly inspired by Cheryl herself, and has a central theme of documentary filmmaking.
Cheryl stars in The Watermelon Woman as the protagonist named after and based on herself. In the film, Cheryl is a young Black lesbian who works in a video rental store, attempting to make a documentary that would give an identity to a Black actress from the 1930’s credited only as “The Watermelon Woman.” Since its release, the film has become an important cultural landmark for queer cinema.
Along with directing two other feature films, Stranger Inside (2001) and Black is Blue (2014), Cheryl has also directed episodes for several well-known television shows, such as The Fosters, Dear White People, and The Umbrella Academy.
In 2018, Cheryl created her own production company, Jingletown Films, named after a neighborhood in Oakland where she once lived. Jingletown Films is focused on creating a platform for diverse filmmakers to tell stories.
From originating a new style of filmmaking (the Dunyementary) to being the first out Black lesbian to direct a feature film, Cheryl has changed the world of film. As a student, she was frustrated with the lack of female and queer representation in the archive of Black cinematic history. Having led the way for other Black, queer, female creators to contribute to the archive of film, Cheryl would make her younger self very proud.
© Julia Lasker (02/28/2023) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read Amelie Lasker’s tribute to Cheryl Dunye here.
Check out Jingletown Films here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Photo by Jamie Hopper. Courtesy of Jingletown Films.
Bottom photo: The Watermelon Woman. Courtesy of Jingletown Films.