Watermelon Man is Melvin Van Peebles’ only studio film, made immediately before his game-changing independent Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It shares some of the radical politics with that film, but in a more user-friendly form, and is far less confrontational. It’s basically a take on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but instead of a man waking up to find he is a giant insect, it’s a white man waking up to find he is now Black.
The genesis of the project is interesting. It was a spec script from the writer Herman Raucher, who found out that despite some friends espousing liberal views, they still held racist views (somebody queue up “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”) Columbia loved the script, but they were terrified about what would happen if a white director made the film. They tried to find a Black director, and eventually stumbled upon an arty French-made film, The Story of a Three-Day Pass, which had been directed by Melvin Van Peebles. Rauncher and Van Peebles would clash constantly over the script, so much so that Rauncher would eventually pen a novelisation of his version, where the man wakes up and finds out it’s all a bad dream.
Tonally, the film is all over the place. The problem is probably due to the conflict between Van Peebles, who wanted to make a “black power film,” and Raucher, who wanted to do a satire on liberal white America. It never quite gels, and I do think the choice of casting a Black actor for the main character did not work: when he’s meant to be white, the makeup just makes him look like a light-skinned black man. The studio initially wanted a white actor to play him in the start but Peebles was adamant it had to be a Black actor… the studio was, dare I say it, probably right.
It never has enough bite. The film meanders for great stretches, and starts off incredibly goofy. It has an incredibly strong ending that is pure Van Peebles. Dolemite fans will notice D’Urville Martin in a small role as a bus driver as well.
The score, which was put together by Van Peebles himself, is pretty cool, and the song “Love, That’s America” went back into the public consciousness for its use in a montage about the Occupy movement. If you are a fan of Van Peebles, you should check out the film, but Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is still his best work. He got a three-picture deal off Columbia for Watermelon Man, but the fact that he went and made his own film, which was a huge hit, angered Columbia so much that they rescinded their offer.
The disc from Indicator isn’t hugely packed, with just a audio introduction with Van Peebles and a n NFT interview with Van Peebles from 1996, which serves as a commentary track. There is an image gallery with promotional material, and the booklet includes an essay by Sergio Mims, a 1970 profile of Van Peebles, archival interviews with the director, and an overview of contemporary critical responses.