Friday, June 15, 2012

Watermelon Man (1970)

          Although screenwriter Herman Raucher’s storyline for Watermelon Man represents a trite expression of white guilt (with a distasteful counterpoint of white arrogance), the participation of director Melvin Van Peebles transforms the piece into a more complicated statement. Raucher’s story fancifully depicts what happens when a white bigot wakes up one morning to discover he’s become a black man. Suddenly forced to experience the racism of which he was previously a purveyor, the hero learns a lesson about sensitivity toward minorities.
          Columbia Pictures reportedly envisioned the movie with a white actor playing his black scenes in makeup, planning an ending in which the hero wakes from his “nightmare” to discover he’s white again. Van Peebles, the thorny independent artist who won entrée into Hollywood by making a European feature called The Story of a Three-Day Pass (1968), persuaded the studio to embrace a different approach. In Van Peebles’ movie, the lead actor is a black man who wears makeup during his white scenes, and the ending depicts the hero embracing his new black identity.
          Given this provocative context, Watermelon Man should be a classic of race-relations cinema, but it’s not. For one thing, Raucher’s writing is infused with sitcom-style superficiality, a problem exacerbated by leading man Godfrey Cambridge’s exhausting performance. His acting sharpens once his character becomes embittered, but even then Cambridge is so far over the top it’s hard to parse nuances.
          The picture is equally divided between scenes at home, where the hero’s wife (Estelle Parsons) gradually shuns her husband because of his new color, and scenes at work, where racism leads to marginalization. A vast number of offensive clichés are invoked, some ironically and some less so, from the idea that black people require a steady stream of fried chicken to the notion that horny white women lust after every black man they encounter.
          Unsubtle as ever, Van Peebles employs awkward devices like flash cuts and superimpositions, plus he supplies a clumsy musical score that would have been more suitable for the broad-as-a-barn comedy of the silent-movie era. Based on his subsequent work, it’s clear Van Peebles was itching to move in a more experimental direction, but the tension between his offbeat flourishes and the movie’s homogenized photography is distracting. Like the leading performance, Van Peebles direction bludgeons everything interesting about Watermelon Man, making the picture’s flaws as prominent as its virtues.

Watermelon Man: FUNKY

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