Black Lesbian Film Likely to Rekindle Arts-Funding Furor: NEA Defends Graphic Comedy

By Duin, Julia | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 14, 1996 | Go to article overview

Black Lesbian Film Likely to Rekindle Arts-Funding Furor: NEA Defends Graphic Comedy


Duin, Julia, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


It's black, lesbian, quirky, steamy - and taxpayer-funded.

"The Watermelon Woman," directed by Cheryl Dunye, seeks to promote a part of black sexual history she says the history books have left out.

Miss Dunye, 30, a Philadelphia native with a dry wit, androgynous clothing and a shaved head, has been compared to filmmakers Spike Lee and Woody Allen.

But her low-budget film on a mythical 1930s black actress who falls in love with a white woman differs somewhat from "Do the Right Thing" or "Annie Hall."

The film features what one review described as "the hottest dyke sex scene ever recorded on celluloid" - and was funded by a $31,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Critics say the NEA is using black artists to push a homosexual agenda, but Miss Dunye says the work is merely a comedy meant to show homosexuals' human side.

The debut of "Watermelon Woman" this Sunday at the New York Lesbian and Gay Video and Film Festival raises the question of whether the NEA should be marketing a sexually explicit film as black history. The agency's news release says the film merely "re-creates historical black cinematic images and attempts to point out the lack of information about black women in history."

"There is no demand in the black community for this movie," said Edmund Peterson, chairman of Project 21, a Washington-based organization of conservative blacks. "This is a classic example of the Clinton administration being in bed with the gay-lesbian movement and funding a project through tax dollars that can't get funded any other way.

"Everything gets put under the cover of black history. If we have a film on black criminals, is that black history? If there was a movie on black Christians, it wouldn't get funded. The NEA wouldn't fund a movie about black businesses in America. I'm not arguing her right to do a movie. It's just using taxpayer money to do it."

The NEA, which has been criticized in recent years for funding erotic, obscene or sacreligious art, approved the grant at about the same time last year that NEA chairman Jane Alexander was appearing before Congress and fighting for the life of the agency.

No sooner had Miss Alexander reassured politicians that only 40 of the 100,000 endowment grants awarded over a 30-year span had been controversial, NEA panelists approved funding for what Miss Dunye billed as one of the first feature films ever directed by a black lesbian.

Congress gets to discuss the matter again when a bill to fund the Department of the Interior, which includes the NEA, is tentatively set to be debated Wednesday on the floor of the House. The NEA, which took a 40 percent funding cut last year, is budgeted at $99.5 million for fiscal 1997, the same as fiscal 1996.

The film is bound to cause controversy, said Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, the writer of an article in Ebony magazine on black homosexuals. He lists several famous black activists and entertainers he believes were homosexual and likens "Watermelon Woman" to "Tongues Untied," a controversial PBS film on the lives of gay black men.

"I think it's a story that hasn't been told," he said. "It's risky on the part of the NEA. As long as you don't preach it, then people in the black community won't go after you. People feel homosexuality is not black. It's not natural to the black community. It's been foisted on us by the white community and there's no history of black lesbians in Africa."

The film includes cameo appearances by lesbian writers Camille Paglia, Cheryl Clarke and Sarah Schulman and by black actor Brian Freeman of the performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos.

Women Make Movies, a New York-based distributor of ethnic, feminist and lesbian films, sponsored the film's NEA application, and the NEA funded it because Miss Dunye showed promise, endowment spokeswoman Cherie Simon said. …

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