Friday, May 9, 2008

white movie friday : watermelon man

The very first thing we must do is reconquer our own minds. The biggest obstacle to the Black revolution in America is our conditional susceptibility to the white man’s program. In short, the fact is that the white man has colonized our minds. We’ve been violated, confused and drained by this colonization and from this brutal, calculated genocide. The most effective and vicious racism has grown, and it is with this starting point in mind and the intention to reverse the process that I went into cinema in the first fucking place.

In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles launched himself into the pantheon of black history and culture with his groundbreaking film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. In that movie, which Peebles wrote, produced, directed, scored, and even acted in as the central character, insurgent black pride suddenly found cinematic expression. Van Peebles made that film outside of the Hollywood system, which never would have allowed a black protagonist’s heroic actions to consist of beating up cops, inciting race riots, and generally “sticking it to the man.”

Sweet Sweetback has been hailed as the first Blaxploitation film, but others say that it doesn’t fit that genre, since it works explicitly against white power, and also against black stereotypes, instead of exploiting such stereotypes for profit. Released just a year before Sweet Sweetback, Watermelon Man also addresses white power, but Van Peebles made it for Columbia Pictures, and apparently as a result, its satiric bite is somewhat muted.

Watermelon Man
does still manage to break genre limitations, by moving from broad comedy to satire to serious social drama. When the studio suggested several well-known white actors for the main character, Van Peebles held out for a black actor instead. He finally got Godfrey Cambridge, who plays white insurance salesman Jeff Gerber, a cheerfully racist and misogynist suburbanite, who wakes up one night to discover that he’s turned black.

When the studio requested a happy ending, in which the protagonist wakes up and realizes that his entire conversion experience has been nothing but a dream, Van Peebles insisted instead on a more serious and socially conscious ending. By doing so, he made his movie resonate sympathetically with broader efforts to fight racial oppression, and the film is now hailed as a milestone in African American cinema for doing so.

What the film still does not get enough credit for, though, is its additional analysis of the era’s common enactments of whiteness.

The movie opens in a lightly comic mode, with a whitefaced Cambridge playing Jeff Gerber, a suburban husband frantically working out and tanning himself in his basement, while his wife Althea (played by Estelle Parsons) and their two pubescent children, Janice and Burton, eat breakfast upstairs. After crediting his imaginary boxing partner, Muhammad Ali, with being “a credit to [his] race,” and then stretching out his naked white body under an elaborate sun lamp, Gerber joins his family in the kitchen. Not in their TV viewing, though, since he doesn’t like what’s pouring out of the television—news coverage of race riots.

When Althea says that white people should show “greater interest and understanding” in black struggle, Gerber won’t hear of it. Soon he’s out the door and performing his morning ritual, a footrace with a bus. He runs alongside it while the passengers shout for its black driver to hurry, hoping the bus will beat him to a later stop. Gerber arrives first, apparently as usual, and as he boards the bus, pays his cheaper fare, and demands a round of applause, we realize that he’s a loudmouthed dickhead.

As is usually the case with whiteness, whatever it is that’s white about this guy becomes more apparent in the presence of non-whiteness. Before going to work, he stops at a diner, where he jokes with the black man behind the counter by flinging racist comments at him. As he then boards a skyscraper’s elevator with other white passengers, he puts his cocked hand to the black operator’s head, announces a hijacking, and demands to be taken to Harlem. Gerber’s racism seems to bounce off these black targets, and the white folks around him shrink back in alarm.

His ultra-sexist masculinity also becomes more apparent in the presence of its opposite. As he strolls through the insurance office where he works as a salesman, he declares the women working there “sluts! Sluts! All of you are sluts!”

Oddly enough, in this satiric portrait of white masculinity, Van Peebles has Gerber project characteristics that normally register as black—athletic physicality, brash self-confidence, and hypersexuality. The difference from Hollywood's innumerable depictions of such qualities in black men is that when Gerber arrives home after a long day, these characteristics dissipate like air from a balloon.

When Gerber’s bored, pent-up wife asks for sex, he expresses no interest, then retreats for more exercise to the basement. Tellingly, a mirror there has the word “pretty” written across it. In all of his encounters, Gerber has shown himself to be totally self-absorbed, seeking out ego-boosting reflections of himself wherever he goes. As opposed to the stereotypical notion of inherent black masculinity, Gerber’s sexualized physicality does not spring from biological needs or urges, but rather as a needy response to the outside world.

This narcissism, and the persistent need to bolster it, have been widely identified as characteristics that are encouraged by whiteness; they’re also characteristics that are exacerbated by masculinity.

That night, after again refusing his wife’s pleas for sex, Gerber awakens in the middle of the night and heads for the toilet. When he turns on the light, he screams at the sight of his suddenly blackened self in the mirror. Van Peebles uses a series of colored filters to add a joke to Gerber’s horror (he’s become “colored”), and then Gerber speaks directly to the camera, as if he’s speaking to himself in the bathroom mirror.

The real horror here for Gerber, the white male narcissist, aside from a fulfillment of what is for him a racist nightmare, is that his constructed, performed, and rigorously maintained sense of himself is shattered. He cannot simply continue to see himself as Jeff Gerber, a man who happens to have a strange skin problem, because his identity is based so much on how he sees himself reflected in others. If they're going to see a black man instead of white one, the former Jeff Gerber will no long exist.

After pleading with his God for help, Gerber slips back into bed, hoping it’s all been a nightmare. Alas, the next morning finds him desperately scrubbing himself in the shower, and Althea bursting in and shouting, “Jeff, there’s a Negro in the bathroom!” Gerber then calls in sick and takes a taxi to his town’s “colored section,” where he empties some drugstore shelves of hair relaxers and bleaching creams.

Van Peebles’ interest in whiteness, or rather in specific and varied enactments of whiteness, extends beyond Jeff to the other Gerbers. When Jeff seeks sexual attention from Althea as a form of reassurance that someone still values him, she's no longer interested, and in fact, clearly repelled. As Gerber points out, her white “liberal” sympathy for blackness is thus exposed, as the sort that prefers to keep actual black people at arm’s length.

The Gerber children are soon highlighted as well, in a remarkable, and equally revealing moment. In this broad, often slapstick satire, viewers might expect Van Peebles to depict these white kids as nasty, spoiled brats. Instead, they are consistently good-natured and curious. This choice of characterization allows for another point about whiteness to emerge.

As the parents discuss how they’re ever going to tell the kids about their father’s monstrous conversion, Janice and Burton suddenly appear in a doorway. Faced with telling them the hard truth, Gerber wrings his hands and painfully mutters, “Hi. I’m your father.”

Instead of being shocked, or failing to recognize their father immediately, the children come to him while saying, “Sure, hi dad.”

“Don’t you have anything to say to me?” Gerber asks.

“Your face is dirty,” Erin says.

“Sure is a heck of a tan you got, dad,” Burton adds matter of factly. “You look like a colored man.”

As Gerber looks somewhat chastened by their utter lack of reaction in racial terms, a point gets made about whiteness--that it consists of a set of learned, performed responses to the world. The children are not yet old enough to have absorbed and learned to enact their era’s white adult fear and repulsion when confronted with blackness.

Gerber seeks medical help, suspecting that his condition is the result of too much tanning, and too much soy sauce in a homemade lotion recipe. His doctor eventually reveals, though, that it can only be the result of black ancestors. Gradually, the tone of the movie shifts, as Althea sends the kids away and then leaves herself, their white neighbors insist on buying their house, and Gerber loses his job and sets up his own insurance office.

I won’t give away the end of the movie, but I will say that Van Peebles’ insistence on his own ending, rather than the studio’s, aligns his film with the black power agenda of its day. Like some of his other films, particularly Sweet Sweetback, Watermelon Man contributes to Van Peebles’ reputation as a bold, rebellious fighter for black justice.

As I’ve been saying, though, he also deserves credit for turning the racial lens around, analyzing and exposing some of the ways of white folks, and of some white men in particular--as a self-involved, narcissistic, life-denying performance.

(The trailer for Watermelon Man doesn't seem to be available online, so here's one for a documentary about the film's maker, Melvin Van Peebles.)

How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It)

From this documentary's promotional site:

“My politics is to win,” Van Peebles declares at the beginning of How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), a documentary that explores the life and work of this maverick, modern-day Renaissance man. Whether making guerrilla-style films, flying Air Force sorties over the Pacific (ferrying the atom bomb, no less), studying astronomy in Amsterdam, writing novels in self-taught French, composing music (by means of a self-devised notation system), writing musical stage plays (for which he received nine Tony nominations), recording seminal rap albums or trading options on Wall Street, Van Peebles has blazed his own path, making a mark in each endeavor he’s pursued.

Finally, if you're wondering what Blaxploitation cinema is, here's a taste. This is a compilation of trailers for four Blaxploitation films: Black Belt Jones (1974), Cleopatra Jones (1973), Ebony, Ivory, and Jade (1979), and (the unfortunately titled) Monkey Hu$tle (1976). Again, the two Van Peebles films above do not fit seem to fit this genre, because they address white supremacy and they avoid pandering to common white fantasies about blackness.

1 comment:

  1. This movie had a great impact on my life. Godfrey Cambridge was absolutely incredible.
    For it's time, it was a truly remarkable piece of work and an astounding piece of creativity.
    This was a time when blacks actually had to be humanized in the cinema. That sounds harsh, but it's true. People like to bash Sidney Portier, but he was a pioneer who did what had to be done to humanize black people in a society that white people of your generation can't imagine.
    VanPeeples, Portier, Cambridge, Davis and their contemporaries should be revered for what they did along with their white backers.


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