Director Cheryl Dunye Shares Her Film School Syllabus

Welcome to Freeze Frame, a new column in which Hollywood’s established and emerging filmmakers discuss a shot or scene from a movie that has stuck with them throughout their lives, and impacted the way they view cinema.

Guinivere Turner and Cheryl Dunye in The Watermelon Woman.
Photo courtesy of First Run Features/Hulu.

For the film student set, Cheryl Dunye should be far from an unknown name. Underrated, sure, and perhaps under-taught in institutions depending on where you go to learn about the craft, but any cinephile claiming to be familiar with the New Queer Cinema movement that launched the careers of Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, and Gus Van Sant in the ‘90s will also be aware of Dunye, an indie film icon whose work fits into that late 20th century movement.

Dunye’s seminal film The Watermelon Woman, which concerns Black lesbian subject matter and takes its name in part from Blaxploitaton filmmaker Melvin van Peebles’s The Watermelon Man, made Dunye the first Black lesbian to direct and write a feature film when it premiered in 1996. The movie follows a documentary filmmaker (played by the director) who works in a video store and seeks to find the enigmatic “Watermelon Woman,” a Black silent-era movie star named Fae Richards. The film is framed as a documentary—but it is eventually revealed that “Fae Richards” and the hard-to-find archive of her work were both created for Dunye’s movie (with the help of artist Zoë Leonard). It subsequently became a statement on the dearth of records on Black people in cinematic history—and a hallmark of her filmmaking style. But, as Dunye will tell you, that style comes from somewhere.

Over the years, Dunye continued to direct feature films and teach cinema at universities, though she’s recently made the switch to directing episodes of television (thanks, in part, to Ava DuVernay), and gone so far as to receive an NAACP Image Awards nomination for directing an episode of HBO’s Lovecraft Country. Still, many remain unfamiliar with Dunye’s body of work.

Now, as she prepares to direct upcoming episodes of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, the filmmaker looks back on her career, explains why she pivoted from directing feature films to directing episodes of television, and reveals what she puts on her cinema studies syllabus.

Cheryl Dunye directing on set.

Image courtesy of Cheryl Dunye.

You started as a video artist—when did you make the shift toward filmmaking?

Before I was in the art world, I was in a political theory program at Michigan State, thinking I could make some change and have an impact on the world. I realized I didn't want to do that, and ended up back in Philly at Temple University; it was a fluke that I went to the filmmaking program. Around this time, Ronald Reagan was the president, and he was doing his hijinks, making ads and using really bad media to scare people to vote. These were appalling images, and Nancy did it too. I was looking at what politics was in the city of Philadelphia, where Wilson Goode was mayor. Here was this Black mayor who dropped a bomb on a group of people. I started questioning politics and wondering how I could use media as a tool. I was also protesting and being an anarchist involved in alternative politics in the city. I wondered, how could I put all this together?

What was the first video piece that you made?

I ran into Sapphire at a women's music festival. She's a poet—she wrote Push, which became the film Precious. I heard her read this poem called "Wild Thing" about the Central Park Five, in '88 or '89. Lightbulbs came on for me. I laid down her reading, her voice, and filled it with my own images from newspapers and stuff that I had filmed. It was a montage, a collage. Everybody loved it, and I was like, “I can use this, I can make a statement. Art and politics can live in the same world.” That's where it began. My next tool with it was looking at the lack of images about me, somebody who looked like me, was queer and out in the world. Then the task was to make cinema—though it was video art at the time—that I would watch.

Your seminal film, The Watermelon Woman, is at times a very academic piece, so much so that it even has appearances from Sarah Schulman and Camille Paglia. How did you convince them to be a part of that project?

To be an artist, to be an activist, you have to show up. I was showing up—at every event, every lecture that interested me, taking my education outside of the academic walls. I was in grad school for the equipment and knowledge, but what I was reading was real stuff that was happening. My professors at Rutgers were real artists, and they made us read books and see works by people, go to exhibits. I would run into these people in these places. I was at women's music festivals, so I saw Toshi Reagon and folks like that there, and I was like, I love these people. They're so influential to who I am, let me ask if I can put them in my film. And they said yes.

That film was released in 1996, and at the time it became a cornerstone of New Queer Cinema. A lot of other names from that era tend to get thrown around—Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes, Isaac Julien. Were you friends with them, too?

There was such a small group of us. There was always the "Black" screening or the "of color" screening. They were just starting to make their own work. Isaac was showing his work, and he was a little further ahead of me. There was a reception and he was there, and he met the young Cheryl Dunye, and I was like, “Oh my god I'm meeting you, you inspire me.” It was a smaller bubble and you could count on your hand the people making work at that time. We all knew each other. There was no Internet. If you showed up at an event and hung out after, that was your friendship pool. New York, at that time, was a place where everyone was doing that, and there was a core group of people who you would see and talk to and next thing you know you're making work with them. Donald Suggs was a big influence, and he's passed away, but he was one of the core producers behind Paris Is Burning, who helped Jennie Livingston get into that community. We were all at the same party.

When you started to look at cinema, perhaps more academically or intellectually, was there a film you saw that changed the way you look at art and politics? Was there something that you saw that moved you to the point of feeling inspired to make your own films?

One of the most influential films for me, about style and looking at documentary, I would say the works of Michelle Parkerson. She made a documentary about Audre Lorde. Another work by her is called Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box, about this Black butch who was the announcer at this drag show. And David Holzman's Diary by Jim McBride—you follow it all the way through and at the end you realize it's not a documentary, it was a cast of people. Lots of cinéma vérité stuff, lots of Blaxploitation. I loved Scream Blacula Scream and Coffy. I just dug deep into anything I could see. I wasn't really watching television that much. It wasn't like it is now, there was no Netflix or streamers, and HBO had nothing on it. I was really into movies. Now, it's flip-flopped.

Over the past few years, you've pivoted from directing films toward directing episodes of television series like Queen Sugar and Lovecraft Country. How did you get into directing for T.V.?

It started for me in 2017. I met Ava DuVernay when I went to a screening of 13th. She asked if I wanted to do two episodes of Queen Sugar, and it was in its second season. I said yes and never went back. I was on a tenure track job at San Francisco State University and they did not want me to pursue both avenues and gave me an ultimatum, so I said I would not pass this opportunity up. I left the academy in 2018. Television as we know it was born in the early Aughts, especially with queer and of color stuff. I was still making film, but my idea was never “Let me make a show. Let me create a pilot.” When Ava had Queen Sugar, we started seeing this drive of indie directors into the world of episodic. Yes, there was The L Word and things of that nature, but they never asked me to do anything. There were not a lot of opportunities for indie directors to don an episodic hat, you had to be in the world of television. That's why Ava made Queen Sugar the way it is, so that women could get their foot in that world. There are tons of us who were going through Ava's moment, and now you see them like mad dogs in episodic and the world is changed. Now, who's going to make the features? That's a different story.

Where do you think feature films are headed, in terms of more indie directors like you receiving the spotlight?

Features are in trouble in a way, because we get these Sundance hits but they get bought up and serialized before they even get to the screen. There's something very beautiful about short work, about a standalone film, it's just hard to get that attention within the changing world of media. But it's not my responsibility to do that anymore, I have my own path. My thing is to allow people to do that, so that's what my company Jingletown Films is about. It's about, how can I help people turn the page, and how can I get out of the way? I have other things to do with my life like volunteer work, service work, philanthropy, learning how to play an instrument, learning how to start a café or bed and breakfast. There are other things I can do in the world, and I've done teaching. So, how can I give agency to others?

I'm also a little bit surprised to hear that no one ever asked you, an established indie voice, to direct a single episode of television until 2017.

Nope. It's still very selective. You get Lena Waithe, who was writing until she had the lightbulb moment that she could do her own stuff. You have to flip the switch to realize that you are the one and allowed to do anything, but for the most part we spend time creating our own container and at some point you have to step outside of that and take a big risk. If I never got a job after Queen Sugar—and it took a minute—I would still be teaching. But luckily it worked, and I got representation, and agencies and managers to help, but there are people who directed Queen Sugar who went back to doing what they were doing, like Julie Dash for example, who went back to teaching. Now, a couple years later, she's doing a big ABC thing with Gina Prince-Bythewood. I mean, there's no diversity in Hollywood. You'd think all this screaming about diversity and inclusion is having a huge impact, and it will, as we see who is running the ship starts to change. I think we will start to see different work get made, but the majority of what happens in the trades every day is not with a woman or person of color or queer person at the helm.

Going back to your earlier comment about feeling influenced, style-wise, by Michelle Parkerson, I'm wondering if there are any other films that are essential for a cinema syllabus.

Smaller works. People don't watch all of Isaac Julien's stuff. He went back to the art world. People don't look at Young Soul Rebels or Tom Kalin's film Swoon. It was very experimental, using history, in the Queer New Wave. Certain stuff falls through the cracks. People don't watch some great documentaries and queer films that are masterpieces. People don't go into bodies of works, they binge-watch shows. I would encourage people to pick a director and watch their entire body of work. Get a subscription to Criterion Channel and look at a whole bunch of films by one director to figure out their style. Douglas Sirk and John M. Stahl both made versions of Imitation of Life, and though they were white men, they were dealing with Black content. What were they trying to do, what didn't they do, and how do we turn it around? Let's look at our representation, look at Oscar Micheaux’s work.

You're now directing some episodes of the next season of The Umbrella Academy. That's a pretty splashy project, based on a comic book, with big names attached. It's very unlike Queen Sugar in terms of style. What drew you to that world?

Family and collaboration—shows of this scale, you can't do it alone. With this scale, you're doing one or two episodes, you're actually making a feature film with a big budget and lots of tools. It's a story arc that's more complicated, because it has to fit in with a variety of seasons and locations. What's exciting to me is having agency. You should run to the places where you have agency, and leave the places where you aren't. You see folks moving back to Baltimore or Atlanta, or like myself, moving to Oakland. There are only about seven cities in the U.S. where Black folks have agency, meaning you can see businesses and art, you see yourself. Run to your places if you can get a chance to, and run to those people! I also think one of the places we need to populate is Africa. The future is Africa, it's the answer. Black Panther was just the tip of the iceberg, but we're seeing a whole wave of Nigerian women storytellers just taking it all down. In two or three years, it's going to be so amazing.

During the pandemic, you can "show up" at these places where you couldn't before, to screenings or art shows or talk backs, because some of these things are streaming. You can end up in an art reception at Hong Kong. We create our own boxes, and it's just about the right time when you feel it and allow yourself to break out, and it's not easy because getting over yourself is probably the hardest thing ever, but as the character Ruby says in the episode I directed of Lovecraft Country, I'm tired of being interrupted. How can I live a life uninterrupted? I think about that all the time.