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Melvin Van Peebles
Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine
Melvin Van Peebles
An extremely bigoted white man finds out the hard way what it's like being a black man firsthand.
Rated R.

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
English PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 100 min.
Price: $124.95
Release Date: 9/28/2021
Available as Part of “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” Collection

• Introduction from Writer/Director Melvin Van Peebles
• “How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)” Documenrary
• Booklet


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Watermelon Man: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1970)

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.

The Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Watermelon Man appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. This was a more than watchable image.

For the most part, sharpness appeared fine. While the movie lacked terrific delineation, it usually seemed pretty accurate, and only a few moderately soft shots materialized.

No issues with jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I saw no intrusive edge haloes. Print flaws remained absent, and grain felt natural.

Colors tended toward a natural feel, with a little blue at times. The tones looked fairly full and vibrant.

Blacks were fairly deep and dense, while low-light shots boasted reasonable clarity. Nothing here dazzled, but the result appeared pretty good for the movie’s age.

The flick’s LPCM monaural soundtrack also showed the restrictions related to the movie’s vintage, but it still worked fine. Speech usually seemed fairly natural, though the lines occasionally became a bit reedy.

Effects failed to present much life, but they lacked problematic distortion. While the music didn’t boast great vivacity, the score and songs still showed decent pep. This was a more than acceptable soundtrack for an older movie.

When we move to extras, we start with an introduction from writer/director Melvin Van Peebles. Recorded in 2004, this piece runs five minutes, six seconds and provides Van Peebles’ comments about what led him to Watermelon and related aspects. Expect a perfectly competent chat.

From 2005, a documentary called How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Like It) spans one hour, 24 minutes, 52 seconds as it brings remarks from Van Peebles, sons/filmmakers Mario Van Peebles and Max Van Peebles, daughter Megan Van Peebles, high school classmate Mary McCall, cartoon artists Gebe and Wolinski, friend/editor Janine Euvrard, producer Christian Thivat, publisher Madeleine Martineau, journalist Timothy White, musician Gil-Scott Heron, music arranger Hershel Dwellingham, former Black Panther Billy “X” Jennings, friend/casting director Teddy Stewart, film critic Elvis Mitchell, theater producer Emanuel Azenberg, friend/astronomer Shelley Bonus, friend Marva Allen, executive producer Jerry Weisman, National Federal Theatre director Woodie King Jr., anthropologist Richard Milner, investment banker Henry Jarecki, former Wall Street trader Brent Nichols, trader Jeff Shaw, friend Gloria Jarecki, former news anchor John Roland, and filmmakers Spike Lee, St. Clair Bourne, and Gordon Parks.

“Eat” becomes a summary of Melvin Van Peebles’ life and career. While it comes with a lot of good information, the semu-campy style becomes a turn-off. I’d prefer a more straightforward approach, though the material involved still makes this an interesting program.

The package concludes with a booklet that mixes art, photos, credits and essays from film scholars Racquel J. Gates, Allyson Nadia Field, Michael B. Gillespie and Lisa B. Thompson. It adds value to the set.

As social commentary, Watermelon Man occasionally hits the mark. Inconsistent tone and pacing become an issue, though, and they limit its effectiveness. The Blu-ray boasts generally positive picture and audio along with an erratic documentary. A clear product of its time, Man seems dated but still intriguing.

Note that this Blu-ray from Watermelon Man comes as part of a four-movie “Melvin Van Peebles Essential Films” set. It also features 1967’s Story of a Three Day Pass, 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and 1972’s Don’t Play Us Cheap.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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