Every weekday during March, Women's History Month, we'll be writing about a great film directed by a woman. Although our list won't be comprehensive, we hope to shed some light on work that often gets overlooked by mainstream audiences and awards.

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THE WATERMELON WOMAN
USA, 1996, 90 min, Dir. Cheryl Dunye
Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye) is on a quest to find an old Black lesbian actress known as The Watermelon Woman.
Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye) is on a quest to find an old Black lesbian actress known as The Watermelon Woman. Courtesy of First Run Features
In this semi-autobiographic film, Cheryl (played by director Cheryl Dunye) is a young Black lesbian in Philadelphia obsessed with The Watermelon Woman, a Black actress from the 1930s known for playing mammy roles. An aspiring filmmaker herself, Cheryl documents her quest to find out as much as possible about this actress, enlisting her video store colleague Tamara (Valarie Walker) to help her on this journey. She stops people on the street, follows leads, makes out with a customer, and almost ruins her friendship in an attempt to get a satisfying grip on The Watermelon Woman's story. It's the first full-length film to be directed by an out Black lesbian and features cameos of queer art figures like Sarah Schulman, Camille Paglia, and Cheryl Clarke.

But the subject of Cheryl's obsession, Fae Richards aka The Watermelon Woman, doesn't exist. Not in this world anyway. Fabricated by Dunye, Richards is a stand-in for all the queer and Black actresses in early American cinema. They had lives and lovers and dreams of acting in roles that weren't stereotypical. Ultimately, Dunye and the film are interested in the mechanics of storytelling and access to archives: who gets to decide what stories to tell and how? What's lost? And how can cinema act as a corrective (or balm) to these lost histories?

Available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Kanopy, Fandor, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Netflix DVD, and Scarecrow.

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