Trailblazing through the Decades: Cheryl Dunye (1990s)

In honor of Women’s History Month, NYWIFT looks back at some of the remarkable women who have shaped the film, television and digital media industries through the decades.

By Kathryn O’Kane

Twenty years ago a young artist set out to make a documentary about women like herself: black queer filmmakers. She found nothing but homophobia and omission, and then… inspiration.

The resulting film The Watermelon Woman marked Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 debut – a hybrid of autobiography, documentary, and comedy. It defies categorization and was the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian.

With biting humor and a sharp eye towards hidden histories, the film deftly captures the search for identity and how we, in turn, preserve and share history – from the stories told by ourselves, families, and communities, to those produced by Hollywood and culture writ large.


According to Advocate, “the film, which underlined the absence of black queer women in cinema’s history, is even more relevant today, as queer women of color remain deeply underrepresented onscreen. Although we now have icons like Lena Waithe to look up to, we must show our gratitude to Dunye, whose work has paved the way for Waithe’s creative excellence.”

The Watermelon Woman is still regularly screened around the country. The Watermelon Woman and two other films of Cheryl Dunye are being shown at the second annual Feminist Film Week  at the Anthology Film Archives this month.

Dunye is currently a director on Ava DuVernay’s OWN series Queen Sugar.


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