Jeff Gerber, an insurance agent, lives in a typical suburban neighborhood. He is also both racist and a fitness freak. But Jeff's bigoted world of taunting and harassing black people on and off the job is turned upside down when his skin inexplicably turns dark overnight. As Jeff tries to come to terms with this unexplained phenomenon that has befallen him, he soon becomes the victim himself when all of his friends and neighbors suddenly shun and harass him. This puts a strain on his marriage and loyal wife Althea, who begins to crack under the pressure. When all medical attempts to change his skin back to his former color fail, Jeff accepts that Kharma has caught up with him. Jeff tries to see the light of being a persecuted black man in this cruel and segregated world with the help of some of some new black friends, some of whom were people he, as a white man, taunted and harassed. Written by
"Watermelon Man" might throw off quite a few people with its style of cinema. It's a work of the grandfather of American independent film, Melvin Van Peebles, and with that should come a certain measure of respect. Van Peebles may not have produced dozens of films, but he certainly turned the industry on its head 30 years ago. This is an interesting arrangement on the business side- hot off the European success of "The Story Of A Three Day Pass", Warner Brothers takes on filmmaker Van Peebles for a feature film. The story of Van Peebles versus the company in filming is a conte in itself, but the film remains poignant and striking in its cinematography and theme. Aggressive editing of both film and musical inserts highlight the subtle comedy and pure desperation of the story of a bigot who wakes up Black and watches the world turn against him.
It's something of a manic ride, but Cambridge gives it all the human character it can stand. His antagonist-cum-protagonist role gives you 360 degrees of frustration and forced humility. Van Peebles presses the more unreal moments into a sub-psychedelic form. Printed messages, color fills, choppy eye-effecting shots and that insistent score remind you that this absurdity is all too real. But ongoing themes such as "He stole something.. we don't know what yet," are darkly hilarious as is Cambridge's sharp wit.
"Watermelon Man" is serious film that will still make you laugh at times. This is not the kick-in-the-establishment-a** that "Sweetback" is, but it's an important step on the way. Alongside films such as "Cotton Comes To Harlem" (also with the superb Cambridge) and "Putney Swope," this is an important part of the early end of the Black film explosion.
Look for cameos by songwriter-actor Paul Williams as an employer and Melvin Van Peebles himself as a painter. Black cast staple (and director of "Dolemite") D'Urville Martin is also on hand as a bus driver in some of the film's funniest scenes.
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