Holiday 99:Watermelon Man

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By Nasser Metcalfe

What would be the best way to teach a white bigot a valuable lesson about the black experience? How about turning him Black! This is the premise for Melvin Van Peebles' 1970 classic Watermelon Man. The film stars the late legendary comedian Godfrey Cambridge as Jeff Gerber, a solid middle class white insurance salesman who has a penchant for exercise, racist jokes, and ironically a tanning bed. The very dark complexioned Cambridge is quite a startling sight in the first act of the film as the magic of Hollywood make-up attempts to make him appear white. His appearance along with his quick one-liners makes for a compelling character. His antics include a morning ritual of engaging in a footrace with the local bus on his way to work, much to the chagrin of his wife (Estelle Parsons). As the story unfolds Gerber emerges as obnoxious, yet charming in his own way. We see him less as a despicable racist and more as someone mis-guided and in need of enlightenment. He receives that and then some as one morning he wakes up to the shock of his life-he is now Black! As he struggles to explain this sudden change, not only to himself but also to his wife and two children, he is forced to adjust to life as a Black man in America. The first rude awakening occurs when he does his morning run for the bus. Instead of amusing onlookers, he draws suspicion as a black man racing top speed through a middle class white community. He causes quite a commotion, which culminates in his being stopped by the police and accused of stealing. His new existence forces him to shift his philosophy on a variety of matters. It also causes the people in his life to show their true nature with some surprising revelations at times.

Watermelon Man offers an interesting insight not only to racism in America but to the nuances of human nature as well. It is interesting to note that historically this film was Melvin Van Peebles precursor to Sweet Sweetback's Bad Assssss Song,, the film that is widely credited for spawning the cinematic revolution known as the "Blaxploitation" era. Released in 1970, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Watermelon Man uses a comic lens to examine how the black man in America has been and continues to be emasculated by white racism. Whereas Sweetback was a serious look at a black man who refused to be victimized any longer. Although Watermelon Man was not the first film to deal with racism, it was still revolutionary in how it dealt with the issue of the privilege that comes along with white skin in our society. Van Peebles' direction makes no excuses for hatred, often times leaving the white characters' racism exposed and dealt with. Godfrey Cambridge's performance is some times a bit over the top, yet he still manages to evoke substantive insight into both black and white worlds. This film speaks to a time when race relations were so topical that a major Hollywood studio like Columbia would back a feature film about it. The support was not without it's own challenges.

Van Peebles had to struggle to maintain artistic integrity on several fronts. For one, the studio executives initially intended for the lead role to go to a white actor like Jack Lemmon or Alan Arkin who would deliver the character in blackface make up. They also wanted a safer ending. As legend has it Van Peebles agreed to shoot two endings, one his way and one theirs. When all was said and done and the production was complete, it appeared that he "forgot" to shoot their version, allowing the film to have a much stronger ending. His efforts and cleverness paid off. Watermelon Man is a stirring film that entertains and enlightens. Check it out on video.

 

 

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