Watermelon Man (1970)

Viewed February 15th

One day an affable but horrifically racist white insurance salesman wakes up as a black man.

This was the studio-financed film Melvin Van Peebles made before his classic, independently-produced Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. And that shift--from the bland safety of Hollywood to the wild freedom of independent film--is charted within the arc of the protagonist. At first, it's played as an absurd comedy and his objective is just to somehow pass as white. The white liberal audience here can laugh at it all, taking some sort of pleasure in the experience. When passing as white doesn't work for Jeff, he tries to fit into the white system as a token black, but he can't deal with the constant, demeaning racism. Here, the white liberal viewer becomes the target of some of the film's critique and they feel less comfortable. Finally, after Jeff receives terrifying, racially-upsetting phone calls from neighbors, demanding that he move from the neighborhood because he's bringing down their property values, things become more serious. The film gives up being a comedy at all and Jeff gives up trying to fit into the white world at all. He starts his own insurance business and becomes a sort of black hipster, ultimately enrolling in a militant black self-defense class with allusions to embracing African identity in direct opposition to America. Now the white liberal is no longer laughing, but appropriately threatened. In a time of racially heightened politics, Watermelon Man stands out as a still-highly-potent example of how a black filmmaker could operate.