'Oh Dem Watermelons' is an extremely low-budget short film that occasionally shows up at indie festivals. This funny and imaginative film spoofs racial stereotypes in a manner that would be done more successfully by other filmmakers later on, notably by Spike Lee in 'Bamboozled'. The timing of this 1965 film is unfortunate, as it came at precisely the moment in American history when the civil rights movement made most conscientious Americans (white and black) anxious to pretend that this sort of racial humour had never existed in the first place.
In 19th- and early 20th-century America, white performers (in blackface) and songwriters got a great deal of mileage out of material that made fun of black people, much of the humour extremely vicious. (And quite a bit of it funny, for all its cruelty.) Black performers often had no venue for their talent unless they blacked up in burnt cork and did 'darkie' material that enforced the stereotypes. There was an entire genre of popular music known as 'coon songs', and some very respectable songwriters (including Stephen Foster and Paul Dresser) wrote 'coon' material.
'Oh Dem Watermelons', as is typical for low-budget films, was shot silent with an overdubbed soundtrack. In this case, the audio is Stephen Foster's 'coon' song 'Oh Dem Watermelons', but played in a jazzy jew's-harp arrangement that sounds much more modern than Foster's original. (If a coon song is played on a jew's-harp, I guess that's two racial stereotypes at the same go.) The music and vocals are background for a rapid-fire melange of images, most of them fairly pointless close-ups of watermelons being smashed in various ways. Credit to composer/arranger Steve Reich for the catchy soundtrack and vocals.
There is one very funny shot, which is on screen just long enough to get a laugh before we cut back to more melon-smashing. In this shot, two young men 'of colour' run frantically up the spiral ramp of a multi-storey parking garage, pursued by a watermelon that rolls up the ramp right behind them! This shot is so surprising that it gets a laugh before we figure out the very obvious way it was done. The lads are jogging *down* the ramp *backwards*, with a watermelon rolling down the ramp in *front* of them, and the entire sequence is undercranked. Run the film in reverse at normal speed, and - hey presto! - the actors are racing UP the ramp with the melon chasing them! It's quite funny to see the melon turning corners as it rushes upwards in pursuit of its prey. This sequence could be a precursor to 'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes'.
Unfortunately, that one brief clip is much more interesting (and funnier) than anything else going on here. Nowadays, Spike Lee and other black film-makers are able to get credit for being 'ironic' when they use minstrel-show material, but people didn't want to laugh at this sort of thing in 1965. I'll give filmmaker Robert Nelson some credit for guts. He shows enough talent here that I regret he never had a significant career. I'll rate this movie 7 out of 10, mostly for the music and that spiral ramp shot.
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