on July 11, 1999
I watched this movie late one Saturday night and have not been able to get it out of my head ever since. The pastel colors and the soundtrack were terrific. Even though I am a white man, there for making me the victim of this movie, I simply loved it! It seems that other members of my race did not seem to enjoy it as well as I did, but the fact is, you have to look past the fact that this movie really is "politically incorrect." I really am not much of a judge on how black people are treated today, but I know that this film really showed me how different my own life would be if I were a black man livingin the late-sixties/early-seventies. It just proves that all that we in the magical world of white were really true. We actually were exploiting these people, just for the color of their skin. Maybe, just maybe, the world isn't such a pretty place after all. Great film! I whole-heartedly recommend it.
on September 19, 2004
Being interested in many types of film, I saw the DVD release of Watermelon Man (1970) and it was the title that caught my eye. Directed by African-American film pioneer Melvin Van Peebles and starring Godfrey Cambridge (The President's Analyst, Cotton Comes to Harlem) and Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde), Watermelon Man relates an interesting tale of what happens when a bigoted white man wakes one day to find his skin has since turned black.
As the film begins, we meet the Gerbers, a typical white family living in a typical white neighborhood. There's Jeff Gerber (Cambridge), the head of the family, who make his living selling insurance, Althea Gerber (Parsons), Jeff's somewhat liberal wife, and their two children. One evening Jeff awakes to discover he's no longer white, and believes he suffering a bad dream. This turns out not to be the case, as Jeff retains his new skin color into the next day. He begins to look for answers, maybe it can be washed off if he showers for a lengthy period of time, or maybe the new color of his skin is attributed to spending too much time in his tanning bed, but there appears to be no real cause for what happened. Unable to hide from the outside world forever, Jeff ventures back into his regular routine, and soon learns that the color of his skin isn't the only thing that's changed. He finds racist attitudes prevalent throughout his workday and home life, as now, the system of which he used to be a part of, begins to turn on him, effectively forcing him to `walk a mile in another man's shoes'.
I really enjoyed this different sort of film, as it was an unusual blend of satire and social commentary. The writing was sharp and witty, and while this may not be a film for everyone, it does provide an interesting perspective, one that doesn't necessarily have to beat its' audience over the head (it does lay it on a little thick sometimes) with its' message. Some of the funniest scenes developed in part to Jeff and his wife's initial reaction to his change like Jeff showering for a really, really long time, his reviewing the warranty contract on his tanning bed, and his somewhat liberal wife asking if she should hide the money and serving him fried chicken and watermelon for dinner (she may be a liberal, but she's one of those liberals who's main contact comes from what she sees on the TV). Just think how you might act or be treated if one day you found that the color of you skin has changed, while you remain the same person on the inside. Cambridge does a wonderful job as the main character, beginning as a slightly bigoted individual who sees how life is from the other side. While a dislikable character in the beginning, I began to develop a sense of sympathy for him as the film progressed, not because his skin changed color, but because I felt he really began to understand the inherent differences in a system he worked in and was a part of for so long, and he understood flaws within his own character, now magnified in the attitudes and demeanor of people around him, his co-workers, family, friends, and community. He sees his world is not a particularly nice place to live, that is if you are not of the right color. The humor is pretty subtle, and doesn't seem to be prone to exaggeration, but more or less presented to mirror that of real life, as different forms of racism are presented, from the straight up type (the use of unpleasant racial terms and profiling by the police), to less obvious, more insidious forms in terms of accepted stereotypes and common misconceptions. The direction was a bit weird at times, as different things are incorporated into the film, strange music, odd text, (reminded me of sort of safe psychedelia used in the Monkees television show, only not to that extent) but then the late 60's and early 70's tended to elicit this kind of experimentation, which, at the time, seemed completely new and far out, but now serves mainly to effectively date films containing such elements. An interesting side note to the film, apparently the director received quite a bit of flak over his unwillingness to change the ending of the film. The studio executives had wanted him to incorporate an ending in which the main character would wake up and find his original skin color had returned, and the whole affair was to be presented as if it were all a bad dream (which would have ruined the film, in my opinion). Van Peebles resisted, and was finally able to keep his intended ending, maintaining his creative integrity and preserving the element that makes this film interesting and original. Is it controversial? I didn't get that feeling, although I will admit this movie probably isn't for everyone.
Presented here is a really good looking wide screen version of the film, which runs approximately just over an hour and a half. There really aren't any special features, not even a trailer, but there is an introduction by the director, Melvin Van Peebles, which can be chosen to play over the opening credits of the film. All in all, an interesting, fairly funny perspective that still bears relevance today, some thirty plus years after its' original release.
on June 6, 2002
The first time I saw this movie was back in the late 70's. At that time I felt that every American should see this movie. Now, over 20 years later, I still hold to that belief. Why, because this is a classic movie that skilfully mixes a message with a great story and wonderful performances all the way around. A movie like this would probably not get the "green light" from a major studio today. Godfrey Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, the bigoted insurance salesman living in happy seclusion in suburbia. One night he goes to bed an average white guy, and the next day he wakes up an african american and truly a rasin in the sun. Versions of this storyline have been utilized before (from James Whitmore in "Black Like Me" to that really bad C. Thomas Howell move), but none can hold a candle to the artistry of this movie. It will make you laugh out loud while simultaneously making you think about yourself and your own values. It will take you through the journey of one man's struggle for self acceptance, and leave you asking why eveyone else couldn't get over themselves like he had to. On top of that, it is very clever and will drop subtle hints early in the movie that are easliy missed untill referred to later (like Jeff Gerber's full name, Jefferson Washington Gerber). Melvin Van Peebles (yes Mario's father for the uninitiated) is fully on his game for this movie, and he coaxes superior performances out of the cast.
If you are white, watch it with a person of color and talk about it after the movie is over. It will probably be one of the most powerful conversations you have ever had. If you're african american, just watch the film and prepare for a great deal of identification and head shaking. They just don't make movies like this anymore.
"Watermelon Man" is Melvin Van Peebles' 1970 comedic satire about the state of race relations in America. While progress has been made since this film was made, the film still is relevant today if you can look past the horrible styles and occasionally over the top dialogue and lingo. Godfrey Cambridge stars as Jeff Gerber, an obnoxious white insurance salesman married to a liberal wife (Estelle Parsons) living the American dream. These two were made for their parts and pull them off perfectly, as does Howard Caine, who plays Jeff's prickly boss. You likely know Caine best from his role as Major Wolfgang Hochstetter on "Hogan's Heroes." This was done in the middle of "Hogan's" run, and the roles are not dissimilar.
The film starts as a typical comedy of the era, and frankly is not terribly compelling until the race change scene, after which the social satire wins out (mostly) over overt comedy (occasionally odd music and title cards notwithstanding.) After Jeff's overnight race change, his wife discovers she's a liberal in name only (stopping to make him a dinner of fried chicken and watermelon in the film's least politically correct scene) and their marriage suffers, though Jeff has ultimate command of his destiny in negotiating shrew financial deals (particularly his home sale.)
While the character of Jeff begins the film as a totally unsympathetic protagonist, as his life becomes more difficult it becomes easier and easier to sympathize with his plight, and he eventually wins the audience over. From accounts I have read, Van Peebles really had to fight for the conclusion with the studio, but he eventually won and the film is much better for him having realized his artistic vision. While "Watermelon Man" is not a perfect movie, has some occasionally grating moments (especially some occasional pre-change overacting from Cambridge,) and definitely isn't for everyone, the historical value and era-specific social commentary make this interesting viewing.
on March 17, 2000
Despite the lunatic rantings of the Klan member 5 posts down from mine (is this really the place for such reactionary grandstanding?) I heartily recommend this movie. Made in a time when you could make a "different" sort of movie, this one just radiates with style, creativity, social commentary, satire, and a tremendously gifted performance from the lead character. Yes, this movie is very "over the top," from the acting to the story, to the cinematography, to the lighting, to the crashing piano accompaniment, and THAT'S what makes it so monumental. It isn't like every other movie out there, it's got the unique qualities that make mankind who we are. Sure, the story isn't fully cohesive, and it tends toward the silly, but that's part of the point of the film. It's like a roller-coaster ride in someone else's shoes. Just hold on and see where it takes you. Underneath the readily apparent light humor, It's really quite an intelligent film that represents the past, the present, and the future of how we all think about things. Do yourself a favor (and if necessary pry open your mind with a crowbar) and see it. I'm betting you won't be disappointed.