Melven Van Peebles
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Columbia Pictures VHS
Jeff Gerber, a financially secure, confident, and healthy white male, races the bus on his way to work. He meets it at its final stop before a highway, pays a reduced fare, championing himself among colleagues whose curiosity for this practice is equivalent to their annoyance. He is a deeply bigoted character. To Jeff, racial slurs may function as accepted titles, and racial differentiation is overtly evident to him, perhaps even necessary. Aptly, he is an insurance salesman. His is the art of bullshit and insincerity, and he’s very good at it.
Watermelon Man is ostensibly a comedy of contrived situations. The same concept has been repeatedly made, in which a bigoted man is forced (often through fantasy) to confront his racism. Watermelon Man, however, is hugely significant as the product of filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. Though Van Peebles would achieve the position of an influential and important filmmaker with his subsequent effort, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, this precursory film exhibits his polemics and interest in exploitation.
Jeff is introduced in a quick montage of frantic exercise. He has purchased a tanning bed, stretches a chest exerciser, and counts reps with concentrated speed. He is efficient and athletic. The next morning, he finds he has inexplicably morphed into a black man.
The comedic potential of this scenario is contrived to its very extent. However, I relent to isolate Watermelon Man strictly as a comedy; its premise is more valuable as a thematic exercise. It is not the most stalwart ethnological study of its time (it bows in comparison to something like To Kill A Mockingbird, eight years its elder), though it is significant for its heritage, its confrontation, and its violation of taboos. It is tame by contemporary standards, but there is a rough edge beneath the comedic façade, a desperation and anger.
Unexpectedly, once the comedy is spent, the finale of the film is dark, if not downright threatening (it is appropriately evocative of Sweetback’s final promise to The Man). It is a film made under the auspices of a predominately white industry that depicts a race which had been hitherto unrepresented in commercial film by an allied director. Van Peebles was enlisted to film a second ending (in which Jeff awakes, realizing his strife has been dreamed) which he refused to deliver, maintaining the purpose and integrity of his film. In this thinly-veiled manner, Watermelon Man is a bite at the feeding hand.
Jeff Gerber is angry not because of his mistreatment but because of his self-loathing. He has become the very source of his intolerance. It is the most fitting poetic justice that can be given to a racist character. This resolution is also quite disparaging as it denotes an inability to conform; by this measure, Watermelon Man is a timeless polemic.