In Watermelon Man, director Melvin Van Peebles expresses complex ideas about race and racism in a sophisticated but humorous way. At that, however, if you do not have a strong taste for grotesques--in a formal sense ("outlandish or bizarre; ludicrous or incongruous distortion")--you may not enjoy the film as much as I did. It is something of a surreal, occasionally psychedelic caricature, but as such, it does what all good caricature should do--it emphasizes the truth without being strict realism or "naturalism".
Watermelon Man is the story of Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge). He's something of a strange dweeb who nevertheless has a stereotypical white-bread suburban existence. He's got a wife, two preadolescent kids, a nice home with a manicured lawn, and so on. He's also something of a health nut (although humorously, Cambridge wasn't exactly in great shape when they shot the film). As the film opens, he's busy exercising while his wife is trying to capture a few more minutes of sleep. He regularly uses a sun lamp. He takes the bus to his insurance salesman job, but instead of catching it right down the street, he races it through the neighborhood every day, the goal being to beat it to the last stop before it gets on the highway.
Jeff presents himself as happy-go-lucky and quite a joker, but he's a bit obnoxious and boorish, plus he shows himself to be racist and a male chauvinist, although he's not exactly gung ho about sleeping with his wife.
Just as we're learning about Jeff's routine, something unusual happens--he wakes up in the middle of the night as a black man. At first he thinks it's a nightmare, but it doesn't go away. He blames it on the sun lamp. He blames it on food he's ingesting. The bulk of Watermelon Man has Jeff trying to at first conquer, then later deal with his newfound "problem".
If you've seen both films, you might find it odd that Van Peebles made Watermelon Man before Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971). Unlike Sweet Sweetback, which is intriguing in its own way, but not near as good of a film artistically and technically, the direction in Watermelon Man is finely nuanced and sophisticated, the cinematography is crisp and attractive and technical elements such as sound are superb. I suppose this might be an interesting lesson in how crucial budget and "legitimacy" can be for film-making. It gives access to the finest materials and resources, including a large stable of professionals with narrow specialties. At that, however, Watermelon Man is not nearly as respected now as Sweet Sweetback because of what Sweet Sweetback represents, both ideologically and influentially in the film industry. Sweet Sweetback was something of a revolutionary (and very psychedelic) cry for African-American rights, and it helped launch not only the blaxploitation craze of the 1970s, but also fiercely independent film-making.
Yet, Watermelon Man is just as unique and important in what it has to say about race, even if it's not violent or pornographic, and not bizarre in the same way. Once Jeff becomes black, everything about his life changes. There isn't a person around who doesn't relate to him differently, with many having a polar opposite reaction to him--both his white friends (and family, of course) and his black acquaintances (they weren't friends, exactly, when Jeff thought he was white). Everyone wants to exploit his newfound state, including his boss. Van Peebles makes a sly transition from the beginning to the end of the film that goes from white-bread sitcom to something of a militant blaxploitation flick in a way that you barely even notice.
A large part of what makes Watermelon Man so odd is Godfrey Cambridge. His performance is way over the top and consistently bizarre, but for some of us, in some contexts (such as for me in this context), this kind of bizarre, over the top material works extremely well--in fact, I tend to prefer this to realism. The other performances are at least interesting, even if they're not all good in a conventional wisdom evaluation, but Cambridge really carries the film.
Equally bizarre and a bit disturbing is Cambridge's make-up as a white man. The make-up is extremely well done--it's difficult to picture Cambridge as he really looks underneath it all, but given the character's disposition, Cambridge as a white man comes off as freakish to say the least.
Van Peebles' direction is extremely admirable. He's not afraid to take all kinds of thrilling chances, including such unusual moves as quick pans to go from character to character in a conversation and odd intrusions of psychedelia, such as the scene that suddenly starts flashing different negative exposure images, or the scene that stops to insert commentary that resembles silent film intertitles.
Van Peebles also did the music here, as he did in Sweet Sweetback, and it's just as weird. Near the end of the film, there's an extended version of a song that rips-off "Heard It Through The Grapevine" that features a vocal that even The Residents would raise an eyebrow to. Again, I love weird stuff, so I was happier than a pig in, um, mud.
If there's anything less than satisfactory about Watermelon Man, it's that it engenders sadness that Van Peebles wasn't able to talk the helm more often. He made a controversial move in this film by changing the ending in the original script, as he rightfully should have done (Columbia originally wanted an "it was all a dream" ending, which would have been ridiculous and insulting, to say the least), and that, combined with his independent production of Sweet Sweetback the following year, didn't exactly put him on Hollywood's successful brownnoser list.