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  Watermelon Man A Black Man In A White World
Year: 1970
Director: Melvin Van Peebles
Stars: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D'Urville Martin, Mantan Moreland, Kay Kimberly, Kay E. Kuter, Scott Garrett, Erin Moran, Irving Selbst, Emil Sitka, Lawrence Parke, Karl Lukas, Ray Ballard, Robert Dagny, Paul Williams
Genre: Comedy, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Insurance agent Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) starts every day with his exercise regime, a punishing workout befitting his obsession with keeping fit, before taking a bath and eating breakfast, though if there is one thing guaranteed to wind him up it's the morning news on television. He can't stand hearing about the civil unrest and doesn't think the African American population have a leg to stand on when it comes to their complaints, though he is happy to joke about it with all and sundry - even the black people he meets every day. But he is in for a shock after one average day, for the next he has undergone a radical change, in that it's a change that will make him a radical...

This was how racism was dealt with in the United States in the nineteen-seventies, and in other nations too: if getting angry about it didn't lead anywhere, making a joke of it could succeed instead. Such was the case with Watermelon Man, a title that summed up the tone, kidding a stereotypical aspect of black Americans but also putting it in the audience's faces upfront, and notably directed by one of Hollywood's pioneering black filmmakers, Melvin Van Peebles. His next film would be a lot less friendly, seemingly as a reaction to this, but that was not to say no matter how artificial its premise that this was not deliberately troubling either, it was simply mired in hacky jokes.

It should be noted that though Van Peebles was a gentleman of colour, the screenwriter was not. He was Herman Raucher, a very late sixties-seventies talent whose stock in trade failed to endure too well into the future; his best known work would be the book and film Summer of 42, one of the ultimate "er, thanks for sharing, we guess" entertainments of its age, an account of how he lost his virginity aged fourteen to a war widow. Both were huge hits, though little revived now, and they illustrate the gulf between what was acceptable in the mainstream then compared to these days, the past being a different country and all that - you could apply that unease to this particular effort.

No matter that here the subject was not sex but race, there are terms bandied about in Watermelon Man, in addition to the gags, that would never pass muster even in a Spike Lee work decades later, unless Lee was making a point about how times had changed. Since Jeff wakes up one morning turned black, having gone to bed white, according to everyone around him, white or not, he is now "coloured", a "negro", and judging by the anonymous telephone calls he receives, rather worse racial slurs. He finds himself hassled by the police (his morning run makes the white pedestrians believe he has stolen something and is escaping), edged out of his job, and his wife (Estelle Parsons) is no longer interested in him, though many white women love the idea of going to bed with a black man and make that plain.

If anything, this was more unsettling to watch in the twenty-first century where the problems have not gone away, than it would be back then. Raucher's script is full of obvious jokes that if they were not delivered by Cambridge would be even harder to take, yet you can feel a tension between that material and Van Peebles' political engagement as he tried to wrench the Hollywood version of racial tensions into something more in touch with his concerns. Although not much of this is funny, exactly, it is oddly compelling as little by little Jeff is pushed towards what looks in the last scene like a mature branch of the Black Panthers, making snarky jokes all the way until the time comes when he simply doesn't see the funny side as the director's nervy, needling music plays under almost every shot. No, this was far from convincing as a story of a white man changing race, and stuffs in so many dubious clich├ęs that you may wonder whose side it was on, yet there was an anger bubbling to the surface. Blazing Saddles sent up racism more effectively soon after, but Watermelon Man was a path to that, and more.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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