Symposium honors 20th anniversary of 'The Watermelon Woman'

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Cheryl Dunye and Dee Rees

The College of Health & Social Sciences and the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality (CREGS) hosted “Black/Feminist/Lesbian/Queer/Trans*: A Symposium in Honor of the 20th Anniversary of Cheryl Dunye’s ‘The Watermelon Woman’ (1996)” on September 23 and 24. Approximately 130 people attended the two-day symposium, which included a black queer film festival, presentations by filmmakers, activists and scholars, readings by black queer writers and an art show featuring ephemera from the original production of the film.

Watermelon Woman posterAmong the highlights was the conversation between filmmaker and SF State Cinema Studies Professor Cheryl Dunye and filmmaker Dee Rees. Desiree Buford, director of exhibition and programming for the Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival, moderated the conversation. Rees began the conversation with a tribute to Dunye. In her tribute, she stated, “Her [Dunye’s] seminal work “The Watermelon Woman,” twenty years ago, forever changed the idea of what filmmaking, what filmmakers could be, could say, could look like.” Rees expressed how important Dunye’s work was to her own development as a filmmaker because it affirmed all of the aspect of her identity as a black lesbian filmmaker. Rees has indeed made a splash in the film world with her feature films, “Pariah” (2011) and “Bessie” (2015), both of which depict the lives of black lesbians.

Watermelon Woman symposium panelOn the second day of the event, symposium convener Darius Bost, assistant professor of sexuality studies and assistant director of CREGS, brought together leading queer of color scholars to discuss Dunye’s work in relation to questions of representation, identity, history and memory, and racial, gender and sexual politics. Among those presentations was the work of black trans scholar Matt Richardson, associate professor of English and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Richardson’s presentation examined Dunye’s most recent film, “Black is Blue” (2014), a narrative short film that explores the life of a black trans man in Oakland, California. The presentation aligned with the themes of the symposium by discussing how the protagonist’s transition created tensions between him and the black lesbian community of which he formerly belonged. Richardson concluded his presentation by asking whether black lesbian communities and black trans communities could find common ground in their fight against racism, economic disenfranchisement, homophobia and transphobia.

Following the first panel was a comedic performance by Brian Freeman, former member of the legendary Bay Area performance group, Pomo Afro Homos, and actor and producer of “The Watermelon Woman.” Following the second scholarly panel, black lesbian writer Jewelle Gomez read monologues from the theatrical adaptation of her classic novel, “The Gilda Stories,” the first black lesbian vampire novel, which is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies Jessica Fields, who attended the event on both days, described the symposium as “provocative and moving.” Fields recalled, “looking around the room at one point and realizing how lucky she was to witness the weekend’s conversations and performances.”

The symposium is a part of a year-long series of international events celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dunye's award-winning film.