A few months ago, I interviewed Cheryl Dunye for FLAUNT magazine. It was for their annual Film Issue and the piece turned out to be a kinda melancholy reflection on her career. In fact, Cheryl later told me that she liked it a great deal because it was honest, but that it was "really dark." A few weeks ago, I interviewed her again for the LA Weekly. That piece was assigned to give coverage to an upcoming benefit screening of The Watermelon Woman, which is about to undergo the costly process of restoration. I've cut & pasted the Flaunt piece below, and provided a link to the new LA Weekly article. There's obvious thematic overlap in the two profiles but I think they vary enough to make reading both worthwhile. Also, if you happen to be in the Princeton area this weekend, check me out here. And please give a listen to the interview I did last night on the Sippin' On Ink Blog Talk Radio show. You can hear that by clicking here. As always, comments are much appreciated... Peace.
CHERYL DUNYE: JUST DO YOU (Flaunt; Issue 101)
“I spent all my currency and I had nothing to show for it,” says writer-director Cheryl Dunye between bites of a spinach salad and turkey burger. The lunchtime crowd is sparse at this normally bustling outdoor Hollywood café, the grim realities of the collapsed American economy having penetrated even this culinary oasis of privilege and hipness. But the currency Dunye speaks of has nothing to do with plummeting world markets or crippled financial institutions. It’s the critical acclaim and artistic credibility, as well as fervent fan worship, she accrued through her witty, insightful short films (“Greetings From Africa,” “Vanilla Sex,” “She Don’t Fade”) and her 1996 feature debut The Watermelon Woman. The shorts are pungent examinations of the intersected politics of body, race, gender, sexuality and societal expectation. Watermelon Woman, building on all those elements, is a queer cinema classic, a blend of fictive lesbian love story and mockumentary (long before the latter became a played out gimmick) that mused on old Hollywood’s shoddy treatment of its Negro talent and on the hidden sexuality and multiple lives of a near-forgotten bit player. The film catapulted Dunye into notoriety when it was revealed that she’d used an NEA grant to help fund it, and she and the film were denounced from the Senate floor. The buzz from the ensuing controversy floated expectation for her follow-up feature, 2001’s critically acclaimed women-in-prison film Stranger Inside.
“That [the release of Stranger] is when a lot of folks who’d been longtime fans started accusing me of being a sell-out,” she says bluntly. “They had an idea of what a women’s prison film should be but I wasn’t interested in doing the expected typical women’s prison movie.” She pauses half a beat. “But it was really [the big studio feature] My Baby’s Daddy that cost me.”
Coaxed into making the lackluster comedy by a team of agents and lawyers who convinced her that in order to push her career “to the next level,” she needed to do the film, it turned out to be a nightmare from pre to post production.
“They wouldn’t let me put together my own team,” she states matter-of-factly, “the people I’d worked with successfully in the past and had a short-hand with. And the cast,” she pauses another half beat then continues with a wry laugh. “Their sensibility was not mine. There was a germ of an idea that I maybe could have made work but I was up there in Canada…,” she lets the words hang in the air.
“But that’s how Miramax works,” she continues. “They isolate you and then wear you down. And all the credibility I’d spent years building up, you know, my name, was blown on that one project that I never really even wanted to do.”
Disillusioned with the film industry, she started teaching, became a mother and eventually moved abroad with her (now ex) girlfriend. She and her daughter moved back to the States in 2007 (“I just felt it pulling me. You could feel this shift was about to take place and I wanted to be part of it,”) and is focusing energies on her creative expression again. Part of that is the effort to shine light on that period in the early ‘90s when queer experimental filmmakers of color such as herself, Dawn Suggs, Marlon Riggs, Shari Frilot, and others blazed so brightly; most have now fallen through history’s cracks, their names and work rarely mentioned.
“With the exception of Marlon, we really haven’t been historicized,” says Dunye, “and that was a really vibrant important moment and movement that deserves to be studied and celebrated.”
To that end, she’s spent the last two years laboring to get her own early short films – which she’s dubbed Dunyementaries – transferred to DVD (“I only had these old VHS copies stored in my home,”) and put back out in the world. First Run Features released the DVD The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye in December of last year. She’s also written several new scripts, one of which she’s in talks with backers about funding. “But I don’t have an agent this time and I don’t want one,” she laughs. “I’m doing it myself.”
When asked what advice she’d give struggling young filmmakers, she says instantly, “Stay true to who you are and what it is that you do. Don’t buy into the notion that success or the evolution of your career has to look a certain way. Hold on to your integrity. That’s really all you have.”
LA Weekly profile, here.
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