Watermelon Man

Dir: Melvin van Peebles. 1970. Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons. English. Black Cinema/Comedy.
Watermelon Man

Godfrey Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a happy-go-lucky, casually racist and sexist insurance salesman who’s oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone that knows him finds him unpleasant and unlikeable. One morning he awakens to find, to his shock and repulsion, that he’s turned black in his sleep. He blames it on his daily devotion to his tanning bed but not even his doctor can explain it. As far fetched as it sounds, they try to explore the drastic change in Jeff's appearance in a fairly logical way. Of course, it ultimately can't be explained and the film moves into making humorous social commentary.

Some of the jokes are a bit formulaic. For example, his supposedly liberal wife is horrified at being married to someone who's turned black. Jeff stays indoors after his race switch until he works up the nerve to head to “the colored part of town” to buy some skin-lightening creams which (of course) fail to work.

When he accepts the fact that he’s staying black, he ventures out into a world where his neighbors now vandalize his home with racist graffiti and cops treat him rudely and with suspicion. At work, however, the secretary who’d heretofore generally avoided his flirtations suddenly takes an interest in him. If those examples sound like worn-out cliches, they sort of are but, as his relationship with his family deteriorates, he begins to undertake a more subtle transformation (than his overnight race change) which allows the film to go a lot deeper than the gimmicky premise would suggest.

Jeff is at first thrilled that the secretary is now into him. After it sinks in that she's only into him because of a racial fetish, he realizes that racism doesn't only exist as negative stereotypes, but can take more complicated forms, too. He begins to befriend the black people he’d always ignored, avoided and mocked and what starts out as a farcical “what-if” slowly transforms into something much deeper. The studio insisted that van Peebles shoot an alternate ending wherein Jeff wakes up to find it was only a dream but the director defied them and ends it on quite a different note.

One thing I like about the film is that while it is a satire, it in no way suggests that Jeff Gerber is supposed to be Everywhiteman. After all, most people (regardless of race) dislike him in the beginning. He represents a type, as does everyone in the film. He's an ignorant bigot. His wife is a hypocrite. The secretary is an exoticist. But Jeff grows while the others just reveal their true colors. It's not often that a movie that draws you in with an commercial gimmick takes you this deep.

Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 3:30pm
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