Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 14, 2021)
Initially filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles found it difficult to get work in Hollywood. That led him to Paris for his feature debut, 1967’s The Story of a Three Day Pass.
Apparently that impressed folks back in California, as Van Peebles landed a deal with Columbia Pictures. This led to his first Hollywood flick, 1970’s Watermelon Man.
Insurance agent Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) lives a fairly conventional suburban lifestyle with his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons). He also doesn’t like Blacks and spouts racist comments with frequency.
Bizarrely, one day Jeff wakes up to discover he has morphed into a Black man. As he attempts to deal with this crazed circumstance, he also must confront his own assumptions and bigotry.
In my review of 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I mentioned that it acted as my entry into Van Peebles’ cinematic career, but I’m not 100 percent sure that’s true. I have a vague memory of Watermelon and feel like I saw it as a kid.
If such a screening occurred, though, it took place long ago and obviously did little to occupy my mind. I maintained a loose notion of the film and nothing more.
Of course, even if I remembered it well from my childhood, I’d clearly have a different view of the content circa 2021 than I would’ve in 1973 or so. None of the movie’s social commentary would’ve made a dent back then.
Now the film’s purpose seems obvious – on the surface, at least, as the flick’s tone varies so much that it often becomes unclear where Van Peebles wants to go. While the notion of racism lurks throughout the film and occasionally rears its ugly head, much of the movie goes so broad that the satire fails to bite.
As was the case with both Pass and Song, pacing becomes a major concern with Man. Far too much of the movie just shows Jeff’s attempts to turn himself back white, so we must wait until halfway into the running time before Jeff emerges into the world and deals with racism.
Of course, any sane person would also struggle with this insane change, so it makes some sense that Jeff works to deal with his new situation. However, in cinematic terms, these scenes feel redundant and wear out their welcome long before Van Peebles decides to finally get to something more substantial.
Should you expect Man to ever explain why Jeff turns Black? Nope, and I view that as a weird flaw. I guess we just need to accept this as some form of karma and get past it, but it’s such a huge plot point that it’d be nice to get some vague indication of what happened rather than the absolute nothing we find.
The whole “karma” thing would also make more sense if Man painted Jeff as a more awful racist than he is. Honestly, Jeff comes across more as an arrogant buffoon than a real bigot, as his casual racism and sexism seem fairly par for the course for the film’s era.
That doesn’t excuse these notions, of course, but “White Jeff” really just feels more like a clueless jerk than a true bigot. Of course, the movie “reveals” to us that racism abounds everywhere – even in characters who want to portray themselves as progressive – and that’s partly why it makes so little sense that Jeff is the one who goes through this transformation. If he needs to learn how the other half lives, why just him and not all the other racists we meet?
Perhaps this comes across as nitpicking in a movie that requires us to accept the notion that a character magically changes race overnight. Still, I think the movie needs to work harder to get us to accept the basic premise, as if it lacks some foundation for its concepts, the viewer becomes distracted.
In any case, Van Peebles’ variations in tone remain the biggest issue here. Much of Man pursues broad comedy, though it gives us a more dramatic tone as it goes.
But not all that dramatic. While the film gives us moderate views of the racism Black Jeff now encounters, the movie doesn’t go very far in this regard.
Perhaps that’s a good choice, as it theoretically keeps the movie from melodrama. Still, it feels like Jeff makes a bizarrely smooth transition to his new Blackness in the film’s third act, and the racism he encounters rarely feels as overt and off-putting as perhaps it should, at least for cinematic purposes.
Cambridge offers a solid performance as our lead, at least. Granted, it seems odd that the film depicts Jeff as a physical fitness addict since Cambridge was awfully flabby – and Jeff’s physique plays no important role in the story – but Cambridge handles the part’s comedic and dramatic sides well.
Indeed, Cambridge likely does better with the serious stuff, as he manages to ground the ludicrous narrative. He and Parsons also show good chemistry and make the comedy effective.
Watermelon Man comes across as one of those “you had to be there” movies, a social satire that hit the mark much better during the era of its release. What seemed insightful and powerful in 1970 feels less so in 2021.
Still, it becomes a sporadically interesting movie, and even though the following year’s Sweetback remains much more significant to film history, Man is a much better made effort. Though dated and inconsistent, Man becomes a watchable effort.
Footnote: the movie’s soundtrack includes a Van Peebles’ penned song called “Soul’d On You”. This is such an obvious rewrite of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that it astonishes me Motown didn’t sue.