June Butler was at The Project Arts Centre for the first screening in Ireland of the early works of Cheryl Dunye, the director of the seminal The Watermelon Woman and innovator of a new form of cinema about Black lesbian life.
Cheryl Dunye was born in Monrovia, Liberia but grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, later attending Michigan State University where she enrolled in the political theory programme. Upon realising the potential of using media as a tool to further her political activism, Dunye progressed to the filmmaking programme at Temple University in Philadelphia. She went on to receive her B.A. at Temple University and while studying there, Dunye made her first video project which consisted of a montage of images taken mainly from newspapers. The pictures were shown together with an audio of a poem by Sapphire called Wild Thing. Sapphire’s poem was beautifully aligned both in mood and words with Dunye’s visual project, each complimenting the other.
Earlier this month, aemi and Project Arts Centre presented the first screening in Ireland of the early works of Dunye, curated by Renèe Helèna Browne, which featured 5 short films, with topics such as love and rejection, Dunye’s early exploration of her sexuality, her Libero-Afro-American roots, social status and gender – all elements that Dunye feels she is being scrutinised over. Janine (1990) tells the story of Dunye’s first love interest. Janine is a white girl who attends the same school as Dunye and appears (to Dunye) that she is everything Cheryl would like to be. It is only later in the story that Dunye comes to terms with Janine’s innate bigotry and snobbery. At the end, Dunye reverses the narrative by realising Janine is bound by the Draconian rules of her class and ends the platonic relationship. By doing so, Dunye regains autonomy.
Themes of self-actualisation are peppered throughout each film, with Dunye occupying leading roles in most of the shorts. Janine is both poignant and eye-opening as its searing honesty imprints on Dunye’s personal growth. Dunye breaks through the fourth wall (a common tool utilised in Dunye’s starring films), settling in for an intimate chat about her first romantic attachment. She attempts to fashion her persona according to what she feels Janine would be attracted to. When Cheryl finally realises just how shallow and socially inept Janine is, she becomes empowered and disengages from the narrative.
She Don’t Fade (1991) is 24 minutes long and shows Dunye in a slightly more confident place with her sexuality, yet still imbued with overtones of indecision and insecurity. Dunye is Shae Clarke, who meets Margo and starts a relationship with her. Shae is brash to begin with, pursuing Margo with enthusiasm but in the midst of their liaison, briefly encounters an enigmatic, androgynous other woman and starts to have fantasies about her. The story is propelled forward through the medium of Shae’s best friend Paula (Paula Cronin) who mischievously encourages Shae to further the romance with Nikki, the subject of Dunye’s brief meeting. Dunye, once again, is absolutely fearless in her portrayal of Shae. There are close-up scenes of gritty intimacy between Dunye and Margo but instead of the scenes being awkward, Dunye is good natured and tender towards her partner. Dunye repeatedly looks directly at the camera to either ask the audience a direct question or smile enigmatically. Her films are steeped in humour – seamlessly, she marries audience connections to her storytelling and makes the skill appear effortless. It has the result of including the viewer, causing audiences to feel at ease with Dunye’s point of view, and encouraging them to care about the outcome of the story.
Vanilla Sex (1992) is a montage of polaroid images lasting four minutes. Narrated by Dunye herself, she discusses the meaning of ‘vanilla sex’ between Afro-Americans and white lesbians. For Afro-Americans, it is sex with white lesbians. For white lesbians, it is sex without using sex toys. An Untitled Portrait (1993) is also a four-minute montage of childhood images taken from film footage. The film explores the relationship between Dunye and her brother by studying gender differences in their upbringing.
The final short film is Greetings From Africa (1994). Cheryl, playing herself, meets an enigmatic white woman who embodies Dunye’s sense of adventure. Dunye tries to instigate a relationship with the mystery woman but cannot fully come to terms with her lack of success in that field. It is suggested that there is a degree of fetishism in this film but there seems to be stronger fetishistic overtones in Vanilla Sex when comparing the lexicon of white and Afro-American lesbian intimate practices.
When a strong female director emerges, she is usually compared to male directors, unfairly it would appear as the same link is not made in reverse. Dunye, it has been suggested, is a female version of Spike Lee or Woody Allen. I disagree. While Cheryl Dunye may have been influenced by other directors, male and female, she is outstanding in her metier. Her unique and distinctive approach to filmmaking and the art of the documentary ranks her as equal among the great directors.
The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye screened on 4th February 2023.
Cheryl Dunye, Janine, 1990, U.S.A., Digital, 10 minutes
Cheryl Dunye, She Don’t Fade, 1991, U.S.A., Digital, 24 minutes
Cheryl Dunye, Vanilla Sex, 1992, U.S.A., Digital, 4 minutes
Cheryl Dunye, An Untitled Portrait, 1993, U.S.A., Digital, 4 minutes
Cheryl Dunye, Greetings From Africa, 1994, U.S.A., Digital, 8 minutes