Director: Melvin Van Peebles
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“This ain’t America, is it?”
The 1970s, the decade in which the American independent film movement and the careers of many of today’s iconic filmmakers had their starts, got a rip-roaring launch when the great Melvin Van Peebles made his only studio feature, Watermelon Man. The union of Columbia Pictures and Van Peebles is, in many ways, a classic tale of the African-American experience. Van Peebles couldn’t get arrested as a director in Hollywood, so he followed the example of Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, and numerous others and went East—all the way to France. He got his director’s card by learning to write in French so that he could write a book and adapt it for the cinema—a typical example of Van Peebles’ ability to work an exclusionary system, in this case, one set up to promote French culture, to his advantage. When his French feature, Le permission (The Story of a Three-Day Pass, 1968) was a selected for a film festival in San Francisco, Van Peebles got his “visa” to Hollywood. He was teamed with writer Herman Raucher (who rather incongruously would go on to write the nostalgic coming-of-age drama The Summer of ’42 and other family dramas) and instructed to shoot Watermelon Man as a comedy in which a bigoted white man turns black overnight and, in the end, wakes up from this “nightmare” a more tolerant man.
It’s hard to know what kind of delusions—or drugs—were influencing Columbia’s greenlighters when they conceived this idea, but these were radical-chic times. Obviously, the civil rights movement and desegregation were putting blacks and whites into closer, more volatile contact. But Watermelon Man wasn’t a thoughtful film in the Black Like Me mold. The racism is so blatantly a caricature that a white pseudo-liberal audience would be able to say “that’s them, not me” with relative ease. And the ending the studio wanted would have soothed their anxieties, showing them how terrible (“wink wink”) bigotry is and then letting them return to their comfortably segregated homes none the worse for wear. Van Peebles would have none of it. Not willing to promote the idea that being black is a nightmare, he convinced the studios to let him hire Godfrey Cambridge instead of Jack Lemmon in the lead and put him in white face for the beginning sequences, agreed to include the dream ending, and then “forgot” to actually shoot it. The result is a film that keel-hauls white America in a way that is classic Melvin Van Peebles.
Casually bigoted insurance salesman Jeff Gerber (Cambridge) lives in a nice, restricted suburb with his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) and two children (Erin Moran and Scott Garrett). He considers himself a fit and healthy specimen of white manhood and conducts a foot race each working day with the bus that carries his neighbors into town. Because the bus must stop to take on and drop off passengers, Jeff always wins. He blusters past his resentful colleagues and sexually harasses Erica (Kay Kimberley), the German blonde who works in his office and is disgusted by him. After a successful and productive day, he returns home, eats dinner, rejects his sex-starved wife, and tucks himself into bed for a self-satisfied night’s sleep. The standard movie device for signaling a dream—pulsing, circular colors—envelopes the screen. Jeff wakes up to use the toilet, only to find that his skin has turned very black. After initially blaming his color on a defective sun lamp and trying unsuccessfully to lighten it with a bleaching mold and a milk bath, he finally has to return to work and a world that sees him in a whole new way.
The running sequence at the start of the movie seems rather daft and beside the point: it is, it seems to me, a device to show how differently a running white man and a running black man are seen. Whereas white Jeff moves through his neighborhood and takes shortcuts with ease, black Jeff, traversing the same route, is harassed and stopped by a mob who accuse him of stealing something. Nobody knows what he stole and nobody saw him steal anything. But he must have done something; why else would he be running.
The film also takes off on the supposed potency of the black male. When Althea desires a peek at her husband’s penis, he says “that’s an old wives’ tale,” which is a rather sly way Van Peebles takes a slam at white manhood. Erica, also turned on by the idea of having sex with a black man, slips Jeff her phone number. They hook up, and after sex, Erica riffs in a verbal ecstasy on the virtues of the black body, leaving Jeff uncomfortable with his same white body disguised only by color. He calls her a bigot and leaves as she yells “nigger” in anger. It seems that Van Peebles went out of his way to choose a white woman with a rather grotesque body—her 1970-vintage, rigid breast implants look like bologna sausages fastened with cement—and making her German indulges in a stereotype as well.
Van Peebles also takes on the medical community, to better effect. Jeff’s doctor (Kay E. Kuter) gives him a complete physical, phoning in test results every few minutes to let him know he doesn’t have hay fever or food allergies, a dead-on satire of the rule-out-everything approach to medical practice that substitutes expensive thoroughness for intelligence. When the inevitable failure to diagnose results, the doctor tries to uncover a genetic basis for Jeff’s condition, pointing to his full name of Jefferson and his wife’s name, Althea, as evidence that Jeff always had black tendencies that were bound to erupt.
The moments between Jeff and his boss, Mr. Townsend (Howard Caine) are perfection. Townsend doesn’t care that Jeff is now black—he looks at it as a golden opportunity to put a salesman in the black community, something his company has never had. His business-is-business approach pretty much sums up the color-blindness of greed, particularly when Jeff refuses to sell insurance policies to black families who can’t afford it and Townsend hits the roof. This, at once, shows the more dire economic straits of the African-American community and the perhaps needless insurance purchases of better-off white families. While scenes of Jeff visiting black homes to sell policies show his potential customers to be substantial citizens, it’s a shame that even in a Melvin Van Peebles film, Mantan Moreland, who plays a waiter in a diner, is not allowed to transcend his darkie stereotype.
Althea and Jeff are similar to Archie and Edith Bunker of television’s ground-breaking sitcom “All in the Family” (1971). The main difference is that Althea and Jeff are better off and higher on the social ladder than the Bunkers, and therefore, Althea is a more vocal liberal than Edith would ever be, railing against Jeff’s racism at the start of the film. She starts singing a different tune, however, when she finds she has to actually live her “principles” if she wants to stay married to the father of her children. Instead, she ships the kids to her sister in Indianapolis and follows soon after. She even seems to imply that Jeff tricked her in some way, an interesting take on passive liberalism whose cover is blown in the face of direct confrontation. She has a nice mosquito-y way of buzzing around Jeff trying to scrape, rub, and spit-wash his skin tone away that’s fun to watch, but her sitcom lines, for example, “I could get you some graham crackers or some Bosco,” when Jeff is soaking in his milk bath, are more stupid than funny.
Godfrey Cambridge provides a flawed, but still impressive backbone to this film. His hysteria after his color change is mordant, but mainly the stuff of sitcoms. He wisecracks about his situation, moving to the back of the bus he no longer runs to outpace, yelling at Althea when she unconsciously serves him watermelon and fried chicken for dinner, telling a cabbie who takes him to the “colored side of town” to get some skin bleachers that he doesn’t mow lawns in the white neighborhood, but rather gets to sleep with the lady of the house. Once he settles into a more African-American identity, however, Cambridge brings more nuance and depth to his role. He understands the way things are and even seems to make Van Peebles’ awkwardly symbolic framing of Jeff behind burglar bars in his new apartment seem more matter-of-factly part of the black experience than that of a white man trapped in a black body.
Van Peebles offers many of his signature flourishes, including sex in the form of a black go-go dancer in pasties and incidental music with occasional lyrics that emphasize the black dilemma in America. “This ain’t America, is it?” is more than Jeff’s bewilderment at his loss of entitlements; it is a populist cry from America’s disenfranchised. The improvisational style of this music hints at the improvisational film style Van Peebles only occasionally gets to bust into on this film. It also seems fairly obvious that Spike Lee was greatly influenced by Van Peebles.
Despite its obviousness, the script for Watermelon Man was well paced and witty enough for Van Peebles to sink his teeth into. He may have been paired with this movie simply because it had a black subject and he was a black director, but Van Peebles used the opportunity to its utmost. Watermelon Man is much better than it should have been and formed a valuable proving ground for our most important African-American filmmaker.