Interview with Cheryl Dunye
April 12, 1997
T. Haslett/N. Abiaka (for the Black cultural studies web site collective)


TH: Do you feel that the project of building autonomous black arts institutions is important, and if so how could such a project be envisioned outside of historically masculinist black cultural nationalist models?

CD: That's a really difficult question to answer in kind of an easy way. I think that the film is doing a lot of things. It's addressing some of the problems that I feel that exist within the structure of things that you're talking about that the concept of the black community or the black power movement, or the black feminist movement, or the black black movement, is that there's diversity in that and that the only kind of building we need to do is to acknowledge the diversity and move on. So what happens then? We're definitely going to be left in these fragmented positions where there are gaps and holes created in what we believe in or feel empowered or disempowered about. So I really feel that the
Watermelon Woman is working to fill up some of those holes. I've given up my life for the last four years and would have hoped that more progressive folks and those kind of communities of labels of identity politics and race politics, etc. would have made it out to the film or helped with the film or supported the film, but they haven't so there's a lot of work to do. The people who are my audience and did see the film know that and I really think that this film touches them in a way that puts them in touch with the actual "past" and history of it and that it pushes you into the present and the future. By the end of the film it's back in your face saying the Watermelon Woman is a fiction, I made it all up. What does that mean now, you have to do something. I see and have seen through this festival circuit of dealing with the film that there are a few black gay progressive type of features coming out doing this though we all see on the other side the kind of black work that's coming out there that's, you know, Booty Call, BAPs that's so successful so at least there's a consciousness about the black cinema now. At least a Watermelon Woman made it out there

TH: Right, which is so important. I also just wanted to ask you, who was the distributor for this film, I wasn't even sure.

CD: First Run features, and their phone number is 212-243-0600 and they're actually a smaller, old school film collective keeping up with the times similar to the Women Make Movies organization, my fiscal sponsor for the film, in this kind of work for about 25 years now. I'm proud to be one of their recent feature projects First Run distribute in their competing with the 'Jones' of the indie film world. And they have a wonderful video collection and I'm very excited about the possibility of having very good distribution with this project because a lot of people didn't get to see the film because of powers that be and stuff like that.

TH: Sure. I'm afraid I have to count myself among those people who had to wait for it to appear.

CD: Yeah, it's coming up...I'll be up there with it later in the month at the Women's Film Festival on the 26th in Boston.

TH: Oh terrific. That's great to know. Thank goodness. I was wondering...

CD: There's gonna be a big panel on the 26th and 27th with, I know that Debbie Zimmerman from Women Make Movies is on the panel and some other women filmmakers so...

TH: Oh OK. That will be terrific. that's great to hear...been hearing about it for a such long time and looking on the web and finding it at the Berlin Film Festival but never being able to actually track it. you know, I've seen a lot of your other work, I would go into Third World Newsreel and see some of the stuff that you did there.

TH: This is another one of those formal academic theory questions...in terms of identifications, identities, and subjectivities, do you feel that a label such as 'black lesbian filmmaker' is a reductive essentialist one or an oppositional one or do you feel that's an unfair distinction?

CD: In one sense I've moved through embracing that as something for complete empowerment and tried to rebel against that and just call myself an artist and then moving back towards it because there's a certain amount of labeling and stereotyping that our culture lives on and needs. Labels help us cross other cultural lines like class. None of those labels talks about where I came from economically. If that can point people towards that battle which I think is the biggest and scariest battle that I think is going to be real for all of us or help us even mobilize around that kind of struggle I'm supportive of it. I think the shifting through all those kind of labels that the film acknowledges and is about, that each of those labels has a lot of...what is the black community?, what is the lesbian community?, what is the filmmaking community even, and here it is in one person and what does that mean. Beyond the film, beyond the labels, me as a person and the project itself kind of speaks true and is all tied together. It doesn't cancel anything out. in a way it's good at certain times and bad at certain times, you know what I'm saying? In one sense it acknowledges a public recognition that needs to happen within these communities about race or about sexuality in the black community, i.e. not being able to deal with sexuality issues and the lesbian community not being able to deal with race. The film has to label itself in order to work on those things. It's an old school kind of turnaround trick that's working a little bit. The one thing I am in support of is being called a black lesbian in say a more kind of hollywood industry context and seeing in the same sentence Whoopi Goldberg's name mentioned from Boys on the Side and Queen Latifah's name mentioned from Set It Off and there being a critique of the "plethora" or non-plethora of black lesbian imagery out there. When could we have ever said that before?

TH: Is it just the years of people being starved for representations of ...

CD: People being ? Basically. (laughs) and I think that what
Watermelon Woman does is says that you can have your own Watermelon Woman too, and you do have your own Watermelon Woman. and you have to acknowledge that and move on with it.

TH: I wanted to ask you about your "frank" portrayal of lesbian sex in She Don't Fade. Does that film, in your mind, privilege a black lesbian spectator and could it be seen as the object of a voyeuristic gaze from the perspective of a different viewing subject, a different spectator?

CD: Well, once you put work out there, especially in the sense of theatrical release, you have no control over who's seeing it and what they're getting out of it. The film (
Watermelon Woman) is about the complexity of Black lesbian desire and the sense of racial desire being a theme there, as well as my best buddy in the film Tamara, played by Valerie Walker, is a black lesbian who looks at black porn. her character is a very lively and conservative lesbian who dates a beautiful black woman and she still kind of flirts on the side. We're talking about complexities within it so the labeling and the audience building and the access it's having for that community is one thing. but I hope it goes beyond that. I'm doing two things at once. I'm satisfying the audiences that I have built the film around and for, the lavender limelight of the cultural production community that I got so much support from for making the piece and inspiration from over the years, and writing and talent, and then I'm forging in the minds of people who don't know that there is a world like this out there and that other people exist just like you and me, whoever that audience person could be saying that. It's kind of scary in one sense, like the white male spectator who comes up at the end and says, you know, "love that sex scene", to having black lesbians be silent around it and never say anything. There's so many complexities in having a sex scene that...having the National Endowment for the Arts being attacked by the christian right and congress. Would I do it again? I don't know. but sexuality has had a real thing in my life, or the life that I chose to lead, that how can I hide it or make it invisible. That's not what my agenda is.

TH: Picking up from a piece you wrote in Felix back in 1992, you talk about building a visual culture on black lesbian life. I wanted to ask how you might envision a collective black lesbian subjectivity organized around visual culture as distinct from previous communities organized around writing culture. In other words, through distribution, thinking about Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke and their audiences but then visual culture and distribution in global media and how that might reach a larger audience or a different audience...

CD: I think it's happening. The one thing that was really interesting that you said is that there is this black lesbian writing out there that's been out there for quite some time and readers of that are filmmakers that I know and we actually do have a kind of community. Jocelyn Taylor, Shari Frilot, Leah Gilliam, Yvonne Welbon, Michelle Parkerson, Dawn Suggs, I mean there are scores of us that float around each other, talk about each other, write about each other, curate each other's work and this and that. So what we need to happen next is a) we have the feature out there now and b) to have somebody package it and put it out there as a kind of thing. We wear all the hats and do that all ourselves, but the other thing is to open a space for the next generation or whoever's more into it to do that. Invent yourself. All of our work talks about that and I think all of our lives talk about the invention of who we are and how we work and the mediums that we choose to work in. It's just taking that next step really.

TH: At the Black Nations, Queer Nations? conference, you talked about
Watermelon Woman and wanting to find the best lesbians of color practitioners in terms of the film and I wanted to ask you how successful you were with that? Why or how was that an important goal to you for that film in terms of its production?

CD: It was something that was quite disappointing for me in the whole process when it came down to really asking those types of people as producers, as above-the-line people (those are producers, people who are in the office) and trying to find them and they just weren't there. Or they were there for themselves, which is fine because we're all kind of at work in the field, you know what I'm saying? But having to turn to others, straight, white, whatever people, men, to get that done and what it told me is that there's a plurality within constructions of identity and you have to allow for that to happen. So the piece, of course, talks about interracial desire and it allowed those people to come in and feel more comfortable and us to feel more comfortable with them. Michelle Crenshaw, the d.p., is a black lesbian, most of the cast is of color and a lot of the producers aren't. There are moments when I felt disempowered but with it but there were moments in history, looking back at the Harlem Renaissance which some of my film does look back to and you know, that's how culture gets made with black people. Yes we have to break that chain but yes we have the kind of culture that functions on that philanthropy. Being a token is, as Essex Hemphill said to me, "when you are given a token or made a token what do you do? you take a ride, you ride with it." I feel like a lot of the kind of people that I worked with believed that themselves as well as I did in the sense of moving forward. I think we all got something out of it whether we work together again or not. There's a certain sense of empowerment in creating art and there's a certain sense of disempowerment in creating art and culture. You just have to walk through and move on and not get caught in it. I think so many black women filmmakers and other black artists get caught in the spectacle of stuff and not remembering that there is this path and agenda that they're on. We haven't seen a second wave of features by black women filmmakers yet.

TH: I was thinking about how that sort of patronage and philanthropy system, it's the constant reconsolidation of masculinism and white supremacy in terms of how distribution and production come to...

CD: Definitely. We see too the shrinking numbers of available funds, the
Watermelon Woman being marked by and being probably one of the last film projects to get a National Endowment for the Arts grant; that there are no funds. And the Watermelon Woman or independent filmmakers of color, of queer color, marks another way to get it done. As a very small portion of the $300,000 that it cost to make the film was NEA money, the rest was magic! rabbit out of a hat! We had to invent it. If people watching the film are like 'she made all of this up herself', funds for the picture with all of these people? It's a kind of encouragement, like, wow let me bring out that old project that I said I wanted to work on and believe in it again. It actually recharges people to the possibility of creating stuff again.

TH: Do you feel yourself to be a part of a community of black lesbian artists and is that notion of a community important to you in your work?

CD: Completely important. We all keep in touch with each other and try to create opportunities for each other in our own small ways, and try to not step on each other's opportunities. In certain communities if somebody were to say "this is my idea" or "this is a grant I need help with" you would immediately find somebody taking that grant or taking that opportunity from you. I think there's a very silent sisterhood here that allows each of us to... because we're so few it means so much...it's just important to get it out there any way that we can. I'm constantly calling Shari Frilot up, and she's constantly showing my work or I'm telling so and so about Shari's work or Jocelyn (Taylor's work) or Michelle Parkerson or Leah Gilliam, who has a video in the Whitney Biennial...

TH: Oh she does?

CD: Yeah. It's really good. It's called Sapphire and the Slave Girl. and Yvonne Welbon, who's writing her Ph.D. thesis about black women lesbian filmmakers.

TH: oh she is?

CD: Yeah, you should get in touch with her. I don't have her email or number but I'm sure you could find her. She's at Northwestern.

TH: I've seen quite a lot of her films. I'd be curious...I didn't realize that that's what she was working on in terms of her thesis.

CD: She's very serious about the importance of representing beyond having made Monique and I. I think online there's an article about black lesbian filmmakers that she wrote and that's actually the first part of her thesis.

TH: Oh that's right. I saw that on the net. Ii was doing a search for something and I found that. That was a really good article.

CD: Yeah. there's all that and then some. Scarily, I'm living in Los Angeles now and scarily I'm having to be the outsider, which is I think not even scary actually, it's kind of charging for me because it keeps me alive. Being an outsider in a community that will never ever acknowledge me to some degree and recognizing that and moving past that and actually finding people that I can connect with. So I'm slowly finding there's folks out here. I think one remarkable thing about the
Watermelon Woman and my other works is my ability to do "our gang" on that. "come on Darla, let's use your office!" and "you hold the camera! " Hopefully, I'll be able to do that in the next couple years with another project. That'll be exciting maybe. Hard, yes.

TH: A lot of white feminist avant garde cinema, and I was thinking of Barbara Hammer, for example, tends, at least from my sort of limited viewing of it, to do away with conventional narrative structure altogether, but I think in your films, at least in my opinion, you retain certain conventional narrative structures but you undercut it with different techniques in terms of cinematic language and I wanted to ask you about your ideas about narrativity in film in terms of...not teleological narrative but just the idea of how narrative functions.

CD: Narrative is as true as we want it to be. We believe in narrative as truth, as document. And we believe in document as fiction. Once we acknowledge that about our lives and the world more than we do now there will be less crazy people walking around, or less people labeled as crazy. That kind of cultural schizophrenia, that kind of 'who are you', 'what do you look like to the world', 'who do you want to be', 'where do you come from' kind of stuff, once it gets acknowledged that it's just who you are as one person and that it's filled with all this complexity, that there is cultural memory, that there is cultural baggage, that there is shifting between your own identities within yourself and that's OK, then I think the world will be a better place. I think my work definitely uses documentary strategies that way. I think I use documentary strategies more than I use narrative strategies because documentary is already fiction, so there's camera structuring and even my approach to subject. I mean
Watermelon Woman could clearly have been a documentary, that puts me in a different space as a maker of media or entertainment. My challenge is to say that that stuff is important and more people need to see it. How do more people get to see something? You know, put a little narrative in there and people do and use humor. So my trick is to actually try to figure out that balance. it was hard thing for Annie Taylor, the editor, from Philly, and myself to keep that there. A lot of the wonderful things about She Don't Fade are the raw points but I had to lose some of that here. Still, the shifting between vignettes to straightforward talking head address, to a joke or something was a formulaic approach, to getting a message across, that I had to put my foot down to retain.

TH: Your films challenge the received idea of documentary as a non-ideological kind of representation, as if it's just a sort of mirror held up to reality...

CD: It' s like a warped mirror. The thing is people have to get comfortable with this chaos that's going on and I think my work tries to make some sort of sense of that, especially in the lives of some folk who are labeled deviant or invisible and that there is this complexity in invisibility that is not simple and is more universal than we think. When I look at audiences of the
Watermelon Woman, they're mixed; Asian Americans, gay, I don't even know who they are, faces of many lands in the audience, people of many lands are there seeing it, young and old, and a lot of them are white men. They're there. Actually, the pieces that Cheryl the artist went through to get to the point...I mean, there was a certain point where the white man was the face behind the dartboard, you know. It's kind of trying to have a dialogue with that to understand it and to get something from it instead of just rejecting it. I'm continually pushing those boundaries of cultural politics, identity politics, and personal politics.

TH: Sometimes if I look at the reception for say, Sapphire's book Push and Charles Rowell's Shade anthology and things like that, and see that it in fact has a large, diverse audience at this moment in time, does that mean there's an audience for it, or does that mean there's a stage in which black subjectivities or black cultural production is of temporary interest to white supremacist media, sort've like the Harlem Renaissance. As soon as it becomes unpopular it will disappear. Why at this historical moment is work like Shade or Push so well received? Why does it have that kind of an audience at this time?

CD: I think you're forgetting about black women and black men writers who have been writing about the margins of blackness since slavery. It's been popular in the minds of "white america", they've been crossing lines and creating sympathy and politicking historically. This is just a continuation of that. Look at the other side of what you're talking about like Terry McMillan who's gone the other way with her work and "making it". She's the writer who made it. What does that mean? To some degree she has to what our culture represents about the success of that "crossover". The written word is always there. It's just the trends in popular culture that spotlight on it or not. I think those people who are slowly trucking, like Audre Lorde, with her life and her work clearly marks somebody who the spotlight shifted and shifted and shifted continuously on her career, or like a Samuel Delany or whatever. It marks the complexities of...and the abilities of ourselves to, regardless of popular culture, to continually invent ourselves and reinvent ourselves and start from scratch again. I look back to those moments like the Harlem Renaissance, like James Baldwin's life. He was back and forth between Europe (and the US.) with four or five novels by the time he was 40. As Audre Lorde said, "Are we doing our work now? We can't even leave New York City! " I think we need to think about that. I continually think about that. What were people doing who were like me back then? Were they trapped or were they trying to express themselves? I feel like I'm on the side of, you know, I wanna be back and forth between Europe and with four novels!

TH: In the
Watermelon Woman, what was your thinking, and I know you have forms of direct address and talking head strategies in your other films but, in terms of Cheryl the character and your ideas around the audience, whoever the audience may be, conflating you with the character Cheryl. What guides your choice to insert yourself into the narrative?

CD: I think actually this is the death of Cheryl in such a straightforward way. I think I've been working with that character and that sort of approach with the documentary talking head just that way for that long and I need to play with that. But I think it's quite effective, I mean I really reached a lot of people. I was part of a moment of people doing direct address talking head in popular culture with shows like Cops, this and that. I think it needs to shift a little bit for me. My whole theory about three visual presentations of messages where you need to be talking at somebody, doing a little vignette that acts it out, having some text,--works! I think it works. So I definitely feel charged that beyond being a filmmaker, beyond being this and that, that being an auteur about making film language different, that some of my stuff worked. What we need to be doing is trying to construct other ways for us to communicate. Regardless of what our media background, our -ism is. Hopefully I'm a part of that movement of like Sapphire and other writers in the sense of mixing it up for people. People are becoming more comfortable with that so anything is bound to come out.

TH: On a more pragmatic level, what is your advice for women wanting to get into filmmaking, independent filmmaking primarily?

CD: I would say to take as many production classes as they can. Start small and master the small moment. Definitely align yourself with a community you can work with. Beyond being narrow, beyond focusing on what you're doing, trying to figure out spaces where you can be open to other stuff and I think that's a hard balance, of color, gay, of whatever kind of community; that we aren't working so hard for the revolution that we forget about the rest of the world. One thing that was really important for me was to have my foot in a lot of different places like the art world, the filmmaking world, the New York cultural activist scene at the same time. It keeps you fresh, it keeps you on the edge. I think you have to put yourself out there. I encourage people to get involved. And speak up and get involved. If you can't do it with words, do it with images, with media.

TH: Are you teaching at Pomona this semester?

CD: Yeah, I teach at Pitzer, which is one of the Claremont colleges. I've been there for about a year teaching adjunct. Actually, my producer who is my girlfriend got the tenure track to start and really focus on making a media studies program and I am one of the employees in the program. You know, like the wife's job. But it's great because I have a whole other kind of life in the sense of filmmaking and those kind of responsibilities so it's a good balance. It keeps me on the edge, riding up and down those roads.

TH: Do you find that teaching and other things take away from your time to do other film work?

CD: Not at all. It all kind of goes hand in hand. Because of teaching I'm able to use the library and do a lot of research. Because of teaching I'm able to throw my ideas not just to Jocelyn and those guys but to these fresh young minds. And I have access to equipment! That's another thing that I would encourage up and coming filmmakers to do. If you don't have money, how are you going to make your work happen? You might have the idea to make this big feature with everybody in the neighborhood, but how are you going to do that? It's hard to connect yourself to that if you're not going to work with money. I also encourage everybody to take a business class. Introduction to entrepreneurship or whatever. Learn how to write the proposal or grant and learn how to manage your money and learn how to promote yourself. Because it's not about talent anymore, it's about that. We can clearly see the number of works out there in any media that were sicko, but they know how to effectively self-promote themselves or how to work it. I think that people of color and other people on the margins would be less angry if they used these strategies of the white man to move themselves forward. But don't forget that moving forward also means other stuff, it doesn't just mean forgetting where you came from and shedding skin and snaking away. You do have skin. One thing about the skin that I wear--through all these kind of shifts and shapes is that I'm still an invisible person. I always have to work on that anger, that I have at being treated as "Other" so that is why I make my work.

TH: So teaching and filmmaking aren't incompatible?

CD: No. The teaching actually keeps me fresh. It keeps me in touch with the world, a certain part of the world at least. I learn a lot from my students and I'm sure they learn some stuff from me. It takes time, it's actually more time consuming than just standing up and talking and meeting the students. It's a lot of preparation and work. A lot of that gets to hone me in on some of the things I'm interested, i.e. African-American women in film and the making of the
Watermelon Woman.

TH: That's all the questions that we prepared. I don't know if there's anything else I was going to mention. You've certainly covered a lot.

CD: I was going to say if you need anything else, we'll do it with another phone call if a whole bunch of questions come up or the internet.


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