Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is a racist. He may cover it up in “jokes” or off-color comments that he tries to play off with “no offense” caveats, but make no mistake: he hates Black people. Just see how he reacts to news stories about riots and how he calls them “uppity blacks” for daring to want an equal society. In all corners of his life, he is obnoxious. His workout routine at home is exhaustive and exhausting to watch. On the way to work, he insists on racing the bus, before naturally making racist “jokes” to the Black driver once he finally boards. At work, he is aggravating. He sexually harasses coworker Erica (Kay Kimberly), has a “nudists welcome” sign on his wall, and boasts about the office as if nobody is actually working. A careless, rude, and crude white supremacist, Jeff Gerber is one whale of a protagonist. He is also the perfect for one for Watermelon Man. Directed by Melvin Van Peebles, the absurdist comedy film takes this racist white character and… makes him Black.
Yes, Jeff wakes up one day and his white skin is no more. Maybe it was the tanning bed or something he ate, but no, he is just Black. God has a sense of humor apparently because now, Jeff must confront everything about Black society that his white bread neighborhood had always ignored. The reality that the phone calls from locals calling him racial epithets and telling him to move would be coming from him if he were not Black is never lost on the film. Jeff is the perfect subject, a man who Van Peebles can force to confront his racism while getting his anger out on white America. This is, until the race swap, a portrayal of a rather typical white family. They live in a nice neighborhood, have sex on Wednesday nights only, have two kids, hate Black people (but are liberal), are concerned about property values, and carry themselves with the confidence only a white person can manage. They believe they own the world and, in truth, they very well may as Jeff’s experience will soon show. Van Peebles was never one for beating around the bush. Watermelon Man’s twist plays out with the exact ramifications for Jeff and his family one would expect, all tinged with the righteous rage of a Black director forcing white America to confront this horrible reality right under their nose.
Made for Columbia Pictures, Van Peebles’ lone major studio effort – Columbia did love the film, offering him a three-picture deal that he rejected – Watermelon Man takes every detail and lived experience from Black America and puts it to film. False accusations of theft, rape, and more, all from just running down the street. The dangerous phone calls with veiled threats to move out, all in the name of preserving property values. Liberals and conservatives alike hardly hide their disdain, while uppity clubs have strict racial policies that they very gladly enforce. News stations, naturally, distort the reality of the riots to place the blame firmly on Black people, instead of the systemic issues they are protesting. The only white people to even support Jeff have agendas or shortcomings. His wife Althea (Estelle Parsons), after first seeing him and thinking a Black man was going to kill her family, tries her best but runs out of empathy. The personal costs of being married to a Black man are just too much. As she puts it, things are easier on Jeff because everybody hated him before anyway. Now, however, she is hated too and that is a bridge too far. His boss Mr. Townsend (Howard Caine) is overjoyed to have a Black employee, as it will earn plaudits from the NAACP and allow them to sell insurance to Black families at hiked rates because, of course, he assumes they will not know better. Erica no longer recoils at his suggestive comments, instead now the aggressor as she seeks the exotic appeal of sleeping with a Black man but makes it clear she firmly hates Black people. It is a world full of obstacles for Black success. It is a white world, one where the rules are made by white people and enforced by them just the same. They are sheltered, only experiencing Black people through television and writing them off as “other”. Van Peebles sees through it, has experienced it, and is fed up with it all. Jeff, and by extension the audience, is forced to experience it first-hand. He suckers them in and then shoves every horrible racist experience into the film, offering no room to hide. As Watermelon Man makes clear, even the most firmly anti-racist white person around has prejudice lurking within, just waiting to jump out when a Black person refuses to fall in line with their wishes. Not even a former white man can escape their wrath.
Watermelon Man’s uncommon pairing of a Black star and Black director at the head of a major studio film – especially with neither named Sidney Poitier – sets it apart from its contemporaries. Combined with its outlandish premise, this is a truly unique 1970s film, even if its “walk a mile in another’s shoes” storyline is a bit more trite in today’s world. There is an obvious message laced with Van Peebles’ usual frustration and righteous anger and within Geoffrey Cambridge’s comedic twist, but as obvious as it may be, it loses none of its venom. Watermelon Man is further compelling in its portrayal of protests and in capturing the post-Civil Rights period of the late-1960s/early-1970s. In view of modern events and the protests that have continued on as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, Watermelon Man loses none of its power or accuracy. It shows the contempt, racism, and deplorability that exists within white communities, driven by hate or ignorance. All the while, Black people merely want equality, to stop being killed or accused of crimes by cops, and to have their voices heard, instead of being distorted by a white-dominated society. Watermelon Man’s perspective, continued relevance, and strong delivery makes it a perfect watch for Black history month and for the current moment in the United States.