This collection makes Judge Jennifer Malkowski miss lesbian life in Philly...but not early '90s lesbian fashions.
"…portrait of a young black lesbian artist living in Philly during the 1980s and 1990s."
During a cultural moment that saw the rise of both Spike Lee and New Queer Cinema, Cheryl Dunye was one of several filmmakers who bridged the gap between queer and black communities onscreen. This DVD release collects her short film and video works that preceded her feature-length directorial debut with The Watermelon Woman in 1996.
Facts of the Case
The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye offers up the following six shorts, all with brief written introductions from Dunye:
• "Janine" (1990, 9 minutes, color)
• "She Don't Fade" (1991, 23 minutes, black and white)
• "The Potluck and the Passion" (1993, 23 minutes,
• "Vanilla Sex" (1992, 3 minutes, color)
• "An Untitled Portrait" (1993, 3 minutes, color, black
• "Greetings from Africa" (1994, 8 minutes, color)
In the 1990s, Dunye brought a much-needed infusion of color to the mostly-white field of lesbian filmmaking. While other independent queer women's fare like Go Fish gave women of color supporting roles in white-girl meets white-girl romantic comedies, Dunye not only created leading roles for black lesbians, but made issues in the black lesbian community central to the content of her stories. For example, one of Dunye's favorite themes to consider is the dynamics of black lesbians dating white lesbians—on display in this collection in "The Potluck and the Passion," "Vanilla Sex," and "Greetings from Africa," and elsewhere in The Watermelon Woman. In particular, Dunye tries to figure out what's going on with white women who are obsessed with Africa and with black women, and also, more importantly for her, whether and how black women should actually date these ladies. The most fleshed-out variation on this theme in Early Works is displayed in the interracial relationship between an African-American graduate student, Tracy, and her white girlfriend, Megan. Tracy studies Irish literature and is not particularly well-educated about black culture and history, while Megan is passionate about those topics. Tracy describes how Megan irritates her by, "trying to prove to me that she knew what it was like to be black more so than I did." Any "messages" are always subtle in Dunye's work, but her films tend to argue that there is political and personal value for black lesbians to form romantic bonds with each other rather than just with white women who appreciate them for dubious reasons.
Alongside these questions of race, Dunye also humorously touches on many of the insider trends in some segments of lesbian culture: serial monogamy, potlucks (one of my personal least favorites!), preachy vegans and vegetarians, that couple who always shows up late because they're home having sex, and just how claustrophobic the tiny dating circles can be for queer women—as they say, "it's a small world after all." Dunye's sense of humor comes out best in her opening monologue for "Greetings from Africa:"
"After breaking up with my girlfriend of four years, I made a pact with myself to be single and date for a while. I had almost forgotten what dating was all about, having been one of those victims of lesbian serial monogamy. You remember that wave in the late 80s when everyone was into being married? Anyway, my girlfriend wasn't—but that's another story. So I committed myself to checking out this 'lesbian new wave'—you know, dating only productive, professional, and cute women. When this didn't work, I changed it to just professional and cute women. And then just plain old cute women, which of course weren't easy to find. All the cute girls were still in those relationships from the 80s."
This monologue, like Dunye herself, is charming and funny. But unfortunately, much of the material in Early Works isn't as effective. In general, Dunye and all the interesting issues she boldly delves into sound a little better on paper than they look on screen. Part of what's lacking in execution is obviously due to low budgets and technological limitations. Dunye was, of course, working as a student filmmaker, so her cast of non-professionals and her low-end video equipment can be rather glaring, especially in the narrative shorts. But while these detractors are out of Dunye's control, the conceptual problems with her work can't be blamed on a low budget or the crappy video cameras of the early '90s. Some of the pieces lack a strong audiovisual appeal. "Janine," for example, is just nine minutes of Dunye telling a story on-camera, with a few metaphoric shots of her blowing out candles cut in, as well as a handful of personal photos. The story she tells is compelling, but if she could muster up so little material for the video and audio tracks, why choose an audiovisual medium for telling this story? At other times, her plots and characters don't seem to hold together. Take "Greetings from Africa." At a certain point in the story, while Cheryl is still acting awkward and nervous around L, Cheryl is shown taking a bath with the door open while L wanders around her apartment fully clothed and eventually comes into the bathtub with her. Based on the characters we've been introduced to and their relationship thus far, why would Cheryl be bathing while L was over? And if it was a scheme to get her into the tub or if they've already had sex, then why would Cheryl act so surprised and sheepish when L joins her? Plot points like this one just don't ring true in the context of their stories. But the worst offender in the conceptual category is Dunye's self-proclaimed genre, the "Dunyementary"—supposedly a unique and intriguing blend of reality and fiction. Most of my criticisms of this style actually focus on The Watermelon Woman, which is beyond the scope of this review, but I will say of Early Works that these "documentary" components feel pretty thin in the "Dunyementary" shorts "She Don't Fade" and "The Potluck and the Passion." What they mostly consist of here is sprinkling the narrative with interviews with the actors, who describe their characters and motivations. It's an interesting idea and sometimes it works, but it can feel excessive to keep hearing in-depth analysis of a character who is only on screen for a few minutes. While not the most elegant means, the interviews do allow Dunye to get more interesting issues into her films—for instance, when the gay male actor in "The Potluck and the Passion" speaks in interview about whether his character would want to be called a queen. Another problem with the "Dunyementary" is that Dunye often can't seem to choose between a documentary aesthetic and more artsy compositions. In "The Potluck and the Passion," for example, the documentary feel is frivolously interrupted for a shot of one woman applying lipstick while looking into the camera as if it were a mirror. Perhaps some folks are fans of this kind of mixed-up aesthetic scheme, but in this instance it doesn't work for me.
Early Work definitely has a lot of flaws, as noted, but it's still a thrill to have these early shorts from such an important and interesting filmmaker on an affordable DVD. This is the kind of work you can usually only find in university film libraries, if you're lucky, so I applaud First Run Features for assembling and distributing this collection. The release itself is pretty sparse, with just an on-screen text introduction from Dunye and an eight-minute interview excerpted from another documentary. The interview allows Dunye to elaborate directly on the themes she deals with in her films and to talk about her motivations. After not seeing "any image of [herself] out there," Dunye took the initiative to make her own images about "what it means to be a black lesbian and what it means to be a black lesbian in the white lesbian world." The disc also includes a clip from The Watermelon Woman, which is available on DVD through First Run Features.
Ultimately, Dunye's aesthetics and narrative structures leave a lot to be desired. Regrettably, male voices ring out stronger in the '90s filmic explorations of this intersection between black and queer, and in the end films like Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied artistically surpass Dunye's work. Dunye's early works function best as time capsules of black lesbian culture from the early '90s and as still-relevant discussions of race and sexuality. In those capacities, I recommend them highly.
Guilty of low-grade video aesthetics and cringe-inducing fashion flashbacks—otherwise this disc is free to go.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Clip from The Watermelon Woman
Review content copyright © 2009 Jennifer Malkowski; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.