The Construction of Radical Black Subjectivity: Responding to Filmic Looking Relations with Formal Innovation
By Emma Dahl
Submitted for Film 305: Political Cinema with Dr. Matthew Croombs
Placed outside of the realm of production and representation in cinema which functions to preserve and perpetuate white supremacy, the recognition and portrayal of black subjectivity requires the development of new cinematic languages. The formal innovations in Cheryl Dunye’s the Watermelon Woman (1997) and Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979) undermine such spaces of cinematic negation, demonstrating the possibility for resistance in the face of erasure and totalizing constructions of Blackness . The first feature-length film written and directed by an out black lesbian about black lesbians, The Watermelon Woman combines the seemingly contradictory practices of realist documentary with reflexivity in order to recover—or construct—the multiplicity of queer and black histories suppressed by the white heterosexual norms which govern the making of history. As a member of the L.A. Rebellion, Gerima transforms the militancy of Third Cinema to address cultural identity, the possibility for black liberation, and colonialism in its many forms within the United States and across the globe. As a “hybrid cinematic form” of documentary and narrative film, Bush Mama joins realism and surrealism to express the ways in which state terrorism faced by black Americans and global anticolonial resistance are connected to psychic liberation . Examining routes of resistance in terms of form and narrative, I will demonstrate the ways in which The Watermelon Woman and Bush Mama work to create a cinematic representation of radical black subjectivity that challenges systemic hierarchies both on and off the screen.
In The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl, a black lesbian woman, seeks to recover the name and story of Fae Richards, a black lesbian actress and singer known as “The Watermelon Woman.” Discovered by Cheryl in the 1930s film Plantation Memories in which she plays the routinely stereotyped “mammy” figure, Fae’s name is removed from the film’s credits, erasing her cinematic presence. As misnaming Fae leaves her traceless in traditional archives, mirroring the real-life exclusion of black lesbian women in film history and scholarship, Cheryl must utilize alternative archives of memory to document Fae’s story: black oral histories and lesbian archive . In the talking-head interview with Miss Shirley that emulates documentary realism, Cheryl discovers evidence of Fae’s identity in Miss Shirley’s cigar box . Designed by Zoë Leonard and mixed with real historical photos, the photographs of Fae and Shirley create a record and retelling of black queer life—but the “authentic” experience presented by the photographs and documentary format is still constructed . Dunye and the character Cheryl utilize documentary film as a historiographical medium which Matt Richardson describes as a “method of signifying on the gaps in written history, not a replacement for history" . In its perception as non-fictional evidence, the constructed nature of documentary cinema and the role of ideology largely go unnoticed—particularly when associated with the personal voice expressed by feminist documentary, which is considered inherently non-discursive, its realism antithetical to formalism .To counter this naïve reduction and to demonstrate realism and identification as “viable theoretical strategies,” The Watermelon Woman subverts its own attempts at documentary filmmaking and incorporates reflexivity.
Highlighting the “power in looking” traditionally used in “neutral” documentary formats to maintain control, Dunye parodies the genre and reclaims its oppressive gaze . When Cheryl interviews her mother, she has no idea who the Watermelon Woman is, asking “water who?” Later, her mother snaps at her: “don’t talk to your mother like that!” Including such sequences undermines Cheryl’s directorial power and resists the manipulation of images employed by white documentary filmmakers on the exoticized racial or social other . As this draws attention to its own modes of production and Cheryl’s subject position, The Watermelon Woman is a reflexive work. Cheryl as “producer and spectator, subject and object” is delineated in her direct address to the video camera, documenting the production of her “film about a woman in film history” within Dunye’s film . Before discussing her project—in which she only tentatively claims herself as working on “becoming” a filmmaker—she directs the camera to an empty seat and quickly moves into the frame. Again, she runs out of the frame and repositions the camera to play a sequence from Plantation Memories. Although hailed as a complete destruction of dominant cinematic practices, reflexive film structure itself is not revolutionary, as it is largely employed by white powerful male filmmakers who occupy the position that must “already [be] naturalized before it can be assaulted" . Rather than deconstructing cinematic “mythologies,” Dunye merges reflexivity and documentary to construct a new cinematic language that challenges the practices of dominant white male filmmakers and white feminist cinema .
Working as videographers at a wedding, Cheryl and Tamara decenter Laura Mulvey’s conception of the male gaze in the opening sequence. In control of the camera, Cheryl captures Tamara in a medium long shot. This establishing shot immediately grounds the centrality of black lesbian women as subject rather than an “objectified other" . Cheryl’s first appearance on screen documents her resistance to the cinematic modes of production which render black lesbian women—both as “maker[s] of meaning” behind the camera and subjects in front of the camera—invisible . Addressing the white photographer who sets up his equipment and starts to rearrange Tamara’s posed group, Cheryl says “Excuse me sir, we’re working with the family right now. Don’t you even see the video equipment? Why don’t you just wait your turn?” As the first audible voice in The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl will not reduce her presence to the edges of the narrative.
Cheryl’s desire for and identification with Fae—whom she senses is queer and describes in Plantation Memories as “the most beautiful black mammy, named Elsie”—further drives the necessity of self-representation . Clitha Mason describes the representation of Fae as a desirable, complex, lesbian figure visibly centred in the storyline as a “queering of the mammy,” disrupting the enduring characterization of this figure as asexual and undesirable . Queering the mammy displaces both the dismissive white heteronormative and white queer gaze—such as Martha Page’s—allowing for the complex representation of black female characters . By challenging the rendering of the “mammy” as asexual, Dunye opens up the sexual implications between white mistresses and enslaved black women.
In Plantation Memories, Fae must prioritize a white woman’s emotions to ensure her own survival, wiping away the mistress’s tears during her romantic crisis with her partner—recalling the enduring exploitative role that black women have had to play as “emotional, sexual, reproductive, and physical laborers for white women" . This dynamic is echoed off-screen between Fae and Martha, as Fae must rely on Martha’s socioeconomic power to find work. This is also reflected in Cheryl and Diana’s relationship: Diana’s connections provide Cheryl with sources of information for her documentary—but not without exposing Cheryl to racism and homophobia, which Diana is complicit in.
Further, Diana’s fetishistic desire for Cheryl and the social clout that a proximity to Blackness provides her—which comes at the expense of Cheryl’s relationships to other black women—exemplifies what Mason describes as the persistent “white investment in the mammy" . In this relationship, the mammy figure is “portrayed with affection by whites because it epitomized the ultimate sexist-racist vision of ideal black womanhood" . This is most clearly expressed in the satirical interview with cultural critic Camille Paglia, who is situated as the feminist authority, reflecting white feminism’s routine sidelining of black womanhood and black voices. Paglia defends the character of the mammy, entirely unable to see any harm in this stereotype and the influence of her own privilege in claiming this reductive representation for herself. In the face of such erasure, Cheryl refuses to portray herself and Fae as maintaining forces of white womanhood in which they are minimized to “indexical presences” of subservience . In her completed film, Cheryl confidently claims the title of “black lesbian filmmaker” and takes hold of the power of looking.
Such self-representative power is a threat to existing social systems both on and off screen. This is made clear when Cheryl is stopped by officers while carrying her video camera, revealing the function of the police as an oppressive state force through the gendered surveillance of black lesbian women. Immediately aggressive, the white cop calls her a “crackhead” and asks: “Hey boy, where do you think you’re going with that video camera?” It is not clear if the police see Cheryl as a black man or a masculine woman, but as the term boy diminishes black masculinity and reinforces white male power, it is evident that being recognized as black indicates various levels of perceived subordination . Similarly, Bush Mama’s opening frames set the collapse between social realism and horror in motion as the camera captures the police frisking and searching two black men—members of Gerima’s film crew—in broad daylight in Watts, Los Angeles. This all-too-familiar scene is not scripted, but rather real-life police harassment due to the crew’s possession of camera equipment . In both films, equipment that enables self-determination and black subjectivity is dangerous in the eyes of the state.
In Bush Mama, the audience is immersed in the world of Watts, witnessing the assemblage of terror this space is constructed upon alongside Dorothy while a looping soundtrack probes the viewer with bureaucratic inquiries. Initially hidden behind a pole, we distantly observe the arrests, our voyeuristic point-of-view mirroring the predatory presence of the inescapable surveillance state. The scene in which a man is murdered by the police outside of the welfare office highlights this everyday horror. Denied benefits and clearly protesting, he carries an axe—but does not even enter the office . Rather than addressing the man’s anguish, the police codify him as an incoherent threat to the power of state structure and quickly shoot him to reinstate order. In this process, the true horror is not the man holding an axe, but the deadly violence that maintains racialized capitalism.
The pervasive presence of state control is exemplified by T.C.’s conviction and incarceration for a crime he did not commit. As a nonlinear sequence in which Gerima cuts from T.C. leaving for a job interview directly to a scene of him in prison, such events may be identified as entirely surreal—but Gerima emphasizes this as a story of “symbolic reality" . A scene in which a black man is suddenly stopped and imprisoned without justification “satisfies a truthfulness to a black experience" . Fiction is utilized to produce affect, allowing the viewer to feel the reality of terror and oppression in Watts.
When T.C. recites his letter to Dorothy from prison, he speaks straight into the camera through the bars of his cell. A tracking shot moves down the cellblock, momentarily pausing on numerous other black men—but in one cell, a man stands in the far corner, nearly out of sight. It is this ambiguous figure that embodies the possibility of resistance that T.C. speaks of, demonstrating the refusal of surveillance. This does not disregard the realities of a “state structure opposed to their very survival,” but it does provide a route for subjectivity and self-determination within systems of containment . During T.C.’s oration behind prison bars, Gerima cuts back to Dorothy, who stares out the barred windows of her apartment. Mirroring T.C.’s incarceration with Dorothy’s very existence reveals the every-day manifestation of repression and alienation under the restraints of capitalism. Further, it expresses the ways in which “militancy is inseparable from the socialization of thought” and its effect on the realm of the psychoaffective—a necessary precursor for politicization and liberation whereby the colonized transform the continual violence and horrors of colonialism into imagined scenes of violence . Dorothy’s identification with the anticolonial poster of an Angolan bush mama represents an early site of her evolving psychic liberation.
Situating Dorothy’s struggle for liberation within a global context, this image of a mother and revolutionary figure expresses a “material form of political and social insurgency” through its representation of militant self-determination . Similar to Cheryl’s identification with Fae in The Watermelon Woman, the image serves as a “signifier of futurity” in which the search for history fulfills a need for and recoding of the present . Opening up a possibility for agency “in the face of structures of domination” through the act of looking, Dorothy contemplates the poster, matching her countenance to the fighter’s . While she begins to stare down the camera, a noise from the street interrupts: a police officer shoots a handcuffed black man on the street several times for lightly resisting. Gerima focuses on Dorothy’s horrified expression to this brutality, which—in contrast to her previous carefully constructed gaze—represents her growing shift towards radical subjectivity and the awareness of a need for militant revolution in the face of state-enforced colonial violence.
Dorothy’s radicalization—the “associative connection” between her psychoaffective dreams of retribution and the systemic oppression which produces it—culminates in her killing a white cop who rapes her teenaged daughter . In her final speech, Dorothy is framed in front of the Angolan bush mama—but this time, she does not need to stare at the poster for reference. Declaring that “the wig is off my head,” she has literally removed the cosmetic object meant to conceal her Blackness in an awareness of the forces working behind the horror that is her existence in Watts: oppressive capitalism that seeks to colonize daily life, along with state-sanctioned physical and psychic repression . Facing the likelihood of a lifetime in prison, Dorothy has not arrived at liberation. Rather, it is the capacity for radical subjectivity at the level of individual consciousness that is awakened.
Placing themselves outside of the realm of cinema’s looking relations which uphold white supremacy, Dunye and Gerima employ the “oppositional black gaze” to counter the negation of black representation . Refusing to identify with the practices that serve to erase and reduce the cinematic presence of black people—particularly black queer women--The Watermelon Woman and Bush Mama innovate and challenge existing formal languages to develop new identities, histories, and stories. Expressing the possibility for resistance as both producer and subject of the look, Dunye and Gerima create a critical space for the self-representation of and identification with radical black subjectivity.
 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992): 116.
 Cynthia A. Young, “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s,” in Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 213, 219; Matthew Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema: Challenges for Film Studies,” Discourse 41, no. 1 (2019): 79.
 Laura Sullivan, “Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility,” Callaloo 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 449.
 Sullivan, “Chasing Fae,” 456; Caitlin F. Bruce, “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty: An Aesthetic Virus of Political Discomfort,” Communication, Culture and Critique 9, no. 2 (June 2016): 287.
 Catherine Zimmer, “Histories of The Watermelon Woman: Reflexivity between Race and Gender,” Camera Obscura 23, no. 2 (68) (September 2008): 53.
 Matt Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in the Watermelon Woman,” Black Camera 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 102, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/426848.
 Zimmer, 54, 57.
 bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 115, 117.
 Bruce, “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty,” 286.
 Zimmer, “Histories of The Watermelon Woman,” 48, 41.
 Zimmer, 45.
 Zimmer, 52, 59.
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 835.
 Mulvey, 834.
 Sullivan, “Chasing Fae,” 449.
 Clitha Mason, “Queering the Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution
in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman,” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 51–52, https://muse.jhu.edu/article/659458.
 Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told,” 104.
 Richardson, 104.
 Mason, “Queering the Mammy,” 66.
 Mason, 68
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 119; Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema,” 81.
 Richardson, “Our Stories Have Never Been Told,” 109.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 235.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 236.
 Tony Safford and William Triplett, “Haile Gerima: Radical Departures to a New Black Cinema,” Journal of the University Film and Video Association 35, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 62, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20686943.
 Safford and Triplett, 62.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 235.
 Croombs, “In the Wake of Militant Cinema,” 81-82.
 Young, 238; Croombs, 81
 Croombs, 80.
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 116.
 Croombs, 81.
 Young, “Shot in Watts,” 239; Croombs, 80.
 hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze,” 117.
Bruce, Caitlin F. “Episode III: Enjoy Poverty: An Aesthetic Virus of Political Discomfort.” Communication, Culture and Critique 9, no. 2 (June 2016): 284–302.
Croombs, Matthew. “In the Wake of Militant Cinema: Challenges for Film Studies.” Discourse 41, no. 1 (2019): 68-89.
Dunye, Cheryl. dir. The Watermelon Woman. First Run Features, 1997. 1 hr., 30 min.
Gerima, Haile. dir. Bush Mama. 1979. 1 hr., 37 min.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, 115–131. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Mason, Clitha. “Queering the Mammy: New Queer Cinema’s Version of an American Institution in Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman.” Black Camera 8, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 50–74. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/659458.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 833–844. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Richardson, Matt. “Our Stories Have Never Been Told: Preliminary Thoughts on Black Lesbian Cultural Production as Historiography in The Watermelon Woman.” Black Camera 2, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 100–113. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/426848.
Safford, Tony and William Triplett. “Haile Gerima: Radical Departures to a New Black Cinema.” Journal of the University Film and Video Association 35, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 59–65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20686943.
Sullivan, Laura. “Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility.” Callaloo 23, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 448-460.
Young, Cynthia A. “Shot in Watts: Film and State Violence in the 1970s.” In Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left, 209-44. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Zimmer, Catherine. “Histories of The Watermelon Woman: Reflexivity between Race and Gender.” Camera Obscura 23, no. 2 (68) (September 2008): 41–66.