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Reel Talk: Cheryl Dunye on Inventing a Film Genre

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A black and white headshot of Cheryl Dunye. Her hair is cut short, she wears glasses and a collared shirt, one hand cups her face.
Cheryl Dunye (Ed Salsbury)

Over 4 weeks, Rightnowish is looking at filmmaking in the Bay Area. Learn more about the series here

Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye is a legend. She’s best known for her seminal film, Watermelon Woman, an innovative depiction of Black women in cinema; 2021 marks 25 years since it debuted.

In making that film, Dunye, a graduate of Temple University and Rutgers University, created her own style of filmmaking known as “Dunyementary.”

Since then, Dunye has put multiple films under her belt. Most of them do the work that Hollywood hasn’t: putting Black women and queer and trans people in leading roles. She’s also working on TV shows, directing episodes of Lovecraft Country and Queen Sugar, to name a few.

Dunye, a proud product of Philadelphia, has made Oakland her chosen home for over a decade. She’s even named her production company after a neighborhood in East Oakland, Jingletown Films, and has produced a film set in Oakland, Black is Blue.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Cheryl Dunye.

Pen: Wondering just how you feel about that film [The Watermelon Woman] being twenty five years into its success?

Cheryl: At the time when I made it, back in 94/95… I had been doing a lot of work as an art curator and was on that path to make art. Ostensibly, The Watermelon Woman is a piece of art, and sort of lives in both worlds.

Cheryl: Something that was sort of biting at me as an African-American lesbian and seeing all these new queer films coming out — It’s been labeled as the Queer New Wave — Also at that time period was the culture wars —  So we’re talking about looking at culture, looking at representation, looking at intersectionality. It’s about me. It’s about my community. I wanted to put people in the film that I saw in my world. Audre Lorde was alive around that time. So I was just doing my work, as Audre Lorde would say.

Cheryl: So [I made] the first African-American lesbian feature because there was none… It took a while for people to understand and accept and see all that… It’s only now in retrospect where people are like, ‘oh my God, that’s groundbreaking.’

Pen: What’s Dunyementery and how do you wish they would teach it in classes?

Cheryl: So, the Dunyementary is Do-Your-Own-Mentary… If you are living in the margins and you’re invisible… you can do anything. So marginality is my strength in that sense. It allowed me to have my own sense of visibility, it help me create my own world, make my own cinema. So the Dunyementary is basically putting myself in my own picture with my own truth, using documentary elements.

Cheryl: I was calling it the theory of 3’s, where you see me talking to you, in sort of a talking head style.. you see a vignette… and then you see text that says something, or is poetic or whatnot on a title card.

Cheryl: And if you didn’t understand who I was, or what I’m talking about at that point, then bye bye!

Pen: [laughs] I like the break down.

Cheryl: I really wanted to kind of put the truth of what my life was like. I’ve always been out. I was never in the closet or anything, so I really wanted to [show] a life that was my life, not coming out, lived, a little bit damaged, functional, dreaming, stuck on traffic, whatever I was doing. I had to put those real elements that people don’t really include in film, but makes it much more authentic…. you see people picking up on that style, later on… The 40 Year Old Version sorta used that style in a good way.

Pen: The realness and intimacy. How did that influence or inform the direction that you did for Lovecraft Country: Strange Case?

Cheryl: I had just, you know, ran crazily to Lovecraft Country with all my visions… I’m queer, I know cinema, I know Blackness. And in my first film, Janine, it talks about my relationships with a white young girl in high school and having a crush on her… and desire questioning whiteness and blackness and skin and stuff like that. So I brought all that.

Cheryl: And then most of the cinematic visuals in it are from my family… My father worked at Polaroid. We had tons of cameras around the house. My mom had pictures from the forties and fifties and thirties. And I would just look at these things. I just dipped into myself again using my own stuff and putting that on top of some wonderful writing by [Misha Green], Sonya [Winton] and [Jonathan] Kidd.

Pen: I love it. It’s like this thread of you being a scholar, a scholar of yourself, a scholar of art, a scholar of Philly… Your production company Jingletown Films is obviously influenced by Oakland. I’m wondering, how was the history of Oakland, of Jingletown specifically, influenced you and your filmmaking?

Cheryl: I was living in Jingletown! Which is a section of Oakland in the Fruitvale area, I could see Fruitvale Station from my loft window.

Cheryl: Jingletown was named Jingletown because there were workers there who, back in the early 20th century, when they got paid, they had money in their pocket and it would jingle. And that’s sort of where that came from. So I thought it was a wonderful way to name the company.

Cheryl: And then, lo and behold, people are on the street just running into Boots Riley, right. Running into Natalie Baszile, who wrote Queen Sugar the book and just running to a variety of other filmmakers and artists.

Cheryl: Oakland is historically, one of the most powerful Black places and woman spaces and queer spaces in the world. And to be at the epicenter of all that, that was a choice for me to move to Oakland. Some people were lucky, to magically be able to be from there. Which I wasn’t. I moved [to Oakland] full time in about 2010… I was living in L.A. I was like, I’m done with L.A. This is where I want to be. I feel complete. I feel agency. And that’s why the company is called Jingletown, because it’s the possibility and agency that we must give ourselves…

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.



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