What You Missed: A screening of Watermelon Man, by Melvin Van Peebles, at the Schlafly Bottleworks. When: Wednesday, August 6 at 8p.m.
"It was the most bizarre movie I've seen in awhile," said Randi, a slightly dazed young film goer. Randi and a room full of about fifty others had just finished a screening of Watermelon Man, by Melvin Van Peebles. Shown inside the Schlafly Bottleworks, the movie was a part of the Webster University Film Series and the last Strange Brew Festival film of the summer. The 1970s racial satire was bizarre, but also hilarious and sadly, still very relevant.
This is how the event went down:
The Previews: The friendly ticket-taker for this $4 screening also doubled as the projectionist. He was wearing one of those snazzy brown fedoras that told you that he wasn't just a ticket guy, he was into the arts. His name is Jon Scorfina and he's the projectionist for the other Strange Brew Festival films, as well. Jon apologized that tonight, instead of using real film, they'd had to settle on a DVD copy. “It's usually nice to have to change the film, because it's like an intermission for people to get up and get drinks.” Drinks! Thanks for the reminder, Jon, we were getting a little parched over here.
An interesting group of people came to the screening. About half were over fifty years old, while the other half was made up of younger people and only a handful of non-Caucasians. It was a predominately white crowd watching a movie (albeit a comedy) about how a black man is unjustly treated by white society in the 1970s. Could be interesting. Miles Davis played lightly over the sound system while people filed in to find their seats. It went perfectly with a cold oatmeal stout; Miles and beer are beloved across all racial lines.
The Feature Film: The main character, Jeff Gerber, played by the great Godfrey Cambridge, is a white middle-aged insurance salesman who lives in the suburbs with his nuclear family. The actor, Cambridge is an African-American who plays the first part of the movie in white make-up, a twist on the white actor in black-face. It's the 1970s, and while his supposedly liberal wife watches the race riots on the news, Jeff is busy obsessively tanning, working out with his punching bag that has the word "kill" written on it and being a complete racist, sexist, homophobic asshole. He cheerfully annoys his wife and alienates his co-workers with his flippant and corny racist jokes. He playfully calls his secretaries "sluts" and slaps them on the butt, much to their disdain.
It's interesting to note that during the first fifteen minutes or so the audience didn't really laugh. Perhaps it was because they weren't sure if the movie was a comedy or if it would be somehow offensive to laugh. Because many audience members lived during this time, maybe it all just hit a little too close to home.
From the reactions of Jeff Gerber's fellow Caucasians, it would seem that they hated racism, that they were more accepting than the loudmouth Jeff. When Jeff wakes up as a black man, however, we see that it wasn't his racism they objected to, it was how vocal he was about it. His wife, who used to beg him every Wednesday for sex, is now a cold-fish and seems to stand by him as long as he doesn't stir up trouble with their white neighbors.The cops are always trying to arrest him for stealing something, they just don't know what that something is. His boss wants to use him as a marketing tool to get the "untapped negro insurance market."
The audience is laughing by now, at Jeff's snappy one-liners as a white man trapped in a black body. Without revealing the ending, it is worth mentioning that Jeff as a black man isn't instantly reformed. His black character is just as unlikable as his white character for almost the whole movie. He does come to realize the error of his old ways, but only through ostracism and suffering.
The Credits: Emotional response is a testament to a good film. Van Peebles makes you think. Whatever race you happen to be, the film, in a very comical way, reminds you that racial stereotypes, such as the prude white person or the watermelon-eating black person, are hurtful and ridiculous. It's easy to be liberal from afar; like the scene in Office Space where a white business guy is blaring rap until a black guy walks past his car and he hastily rolls up his windows and locks the doors. Quiet racism is still racism.
For the generation X and Y audience members, raised with very strict ideas about political correctness, the film's constant use of the taboo "n-word" was almost too much to take. In the words of a film goer named Justin, "It was pretty uncomfortable." Yes, but necessary.