Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Watermelon Man"(1970)d/Melvin Van Peebles

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I've always loved sitting down to a good blaxploitation flick from the seventies,or a bad one,which is even better,most of the time.Ridiculous afros,eyesore pimp gear,racist cops,jive turkeys,bad martial arts choreography,bitchslaps,yo mama jokes,what's not to like,ferchrissakes?Watermelon Man,directed by Melvin Van Peebles,of "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," fame,may very well be the best of the bunch.Read on,mothafuckas.
Godfrey Cambridge(Cotton Comes to Harlem,Night Gallery),a black actor,plays Jeff Gerber,a middle-class white insurance salesman with a wife and two kids(one of which is a very young Erin Moran from Happy Days) who enjoys lying on his tanning bed,shadowboxing,and racing his bus to work on foot,when he isn't being a chauvenist that resists his seemingly liberal wife's amorous advances and being a bigot who throws ethnic jokes around and shrugs off the black race riots she constantly points out on television.His world is turned upside down one morning when he's forced to tell his screaming wife that the negro in the bathroom is him(!).
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Thinking he's inadvertently put too much soy sauce(!) in his homemade tanning lotion,at first Gerber is the same white guy in black skin.But as his milk baths and voodoo rituals("Ooga Booga Dooga Doo!I'm getting whiter and whiter!") to turn him white again are fruitless,and his liberal(?) wife now resists his advances,his bus races turn into police chases("He's running!He MUST have stolen something!"),his previously uninterested teutonic co-worker now wants some sexual chocolate(she cries rape after he breaks it off),and his neighbors crank call him and offer to buy his house in effort to keep the neighborhood white("Jeffrey Gerber?""Yes?""Move out,nigger."Click.),he starts looking at things in a different light.The insurance company relocates him to the black neighborhood,his family leaves him,and time passes.When his wife later calls him to see how he's doing,though he sounds like Jeff Gerber,the white man she married,he's now Jeff Gerber,the soul brother who's training for the revolution in a dirty basement with fellow disgruntled blacks.The transformation is complete.
Columbia pictures originally wanted a white actor like Jack Lemon or Alan Arkin to play the part in blackface,but Van Peebles demanded a black actor,in whiteface instead.The studios also wanted the "happy ending" where he wakes up to find the whole ordeal was just a nightmare,and that he ends up white again,but Van Peebles incurred their wrath and argued for the "soul ending" instead.Columbia liked the movie in the end, and signed the director to a three picture deal,which led to the making of Sweetback,the most successful independent film of 1971,and the studio subsequently tearing up his contract directly afterwards.Ain't dat juss like de man?Always brangin' a bruvah down!See it!
Three out of four B.W.'s

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