Watermelon Man is a movie released in 1970, written by Summer of ’42 author Herman Raucher and directed by the late Melvin Van Peebles; for those younger than me, the elder Peebles is the father of Mario. About a year later, he released a low-budget cult classic entitled Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which some saw as a shrouded sequel to Watermelon Man. Both movies are psychological journeys through the torment, confusion, resentments, and permitted triumphs of blackness in America. One half of the famed Siskel and Ebert movie review team, Gene Siskel, wrote about Sweetback this way, “it is a film about, by and for Black Rage.” As a black man, I saw the film as a homage to survival. Siskel, who is white, went further, writing that it is a “simple tale of an avenging black man who manages, in the course of several encounters, with white people to even up the score….”
I was reminded of Watermelon Man and Sweetback yesterday reading and listening to the defense attorney of father and son Greg and Travis McMichael. The men hunted down a jogging Ahmaud Arbery and shot-gunned him to death at point-blank range. Along with their neighbor, William Bryan, who followed in his vehicle, filming the hunt, the defense says past trouble in the neighborhood gave them the right to grab their rifles and pistol, get in their pickup and pursue the jogging black man. The McMichael duo is clinging to an archaic “citizen’s arrest,” statute of which the investigating officer says neither of the men claimed, accused, saw, or had evidence of a crime committed by Arbery, just a suspicion; possibly fueled by the color of Mr. Arbery’s skin.
Why this reminds me of the movie Watermelon Man is two-fold. The movie’s premise is the story of a bigoted white man who is annoying to all, both black and white. His open sexism only rivals his open racism. The twist to the story is that the antagonist, turned protagonist, Jeff Gerber, is portrayed by black actor/comedian Godfrey Cambridge in white face. Gerber envisioned his rotund body and offensive wit as what every man wanted to be and what every woman wanted. In his white persona, nothing could be further from the truth. In the middle of the night, his conversion to black skin suddenly made him desirable to his busty blonde Norwegian secretary. She had rejected the married white Gerber’s many advances earlier. To his chagrin, he was now acceptable to the bus driver, coffee counterman, and elevator operator, all black men.
Secondly, the simultaneously comedic and tragedy of his new life was that he was now stopped whenever he pursued his favorite physical pastime, racing the morning bus. Constant accusations of ‘he must have stolen something, became a recurring joke. Melvin Van Peebles hit all the stereotypical myths that trap black men and women in a society that looks to misdirect its sins. Unfortunately, Mr. Arbery was the victim of the Watermelon Man syndrome: doing something pretty standard, whether it be the effect of race, fear, ignorance, or a mixture of all three, and dying for it. The death of Mr. Arbery did bring about the rage Mr. Siskel wrote about many years ago. He just misplaced the anger.
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