Been writing way too many obituaries lately. Let’s celebrate some birthdays instead. Today is Melvin Van Peebles’ birthday, so in honor of that occasion here’s the “extended cut” of a piece on WATERMELON MAN which I wrote for Rupert Pupkin Speaks. I love this movie and you might too, depending on whether your sense of cynicism and affinity for anarchy are anywhere near my own.
“He stole something. We don’t know what yet.”
When Eddie Murphy was on Saturday Night Live, he did a terrific, spiteful, insightful sketch about going undercover as a white man, only to find that when you’re white, you’re in, you don’t even need to know the secret handshake, everything’s free and life’s a party. WATERMELON MAN is that premise, in reverse, flipped, and dipped in hallucinogenics. Godfrey Cambridge, a wonderful, nearly-forgotten black comedian who was at one time as famous as Bill Cosby, here plays Jeff Gerber, a white bigot, who one morning wakes up and finds he’s gone black. It’s his greatest, most Kafka-esque nightmare.
“What’s the matter, fella? Ain’t you never seen an Aztec before?”
This is the movie Melvin Van Peebles made right before his paean to righteous indignation, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG, and as funny as this movie is, there’s a palpable (and justifiable) anger to it. Just as there was, I think, when Eddie Murphy put on whiteface, and later on, when Dave Chappelle played with the notion on his classic show of the 2000s. It’s so profoundly messed up that the difference between a man being seen and treated like a prince or a criminal is just a couple shades of darkness away, but that’s America, baby. It rang true in the 1970s and it rang true in the 1980s and in the 2000s and it would probably still work the same today.
It’s amazing to realize that this was released by a major studio — Columbia — and to find out that it was a hit, since the filmmaking style has such a jittery, avant-garde feel to it. The sets feel like they’re out of some 1970s sitcom version of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS — plastic, fakey, cartoonish. It’s as if Ralph Bakshi tried to animate a Richard Pryor routine. The music, composed by Van Peebles himself, jars against the choppiness of the scenes. There are jump cuts and flashes and fast-forwards and all kinds of crazy visual stuff. The style is almost abrasive at times, purposefully so, and it’s matched and even overpowered by Cambridge’s hysterical (in every sense of the term) performance.
Even now, over forty years later, there’s an electricity to WATERMELON MAN that is simultaneously elating and disturbing. This is confrontational comedy, of the boldest and most heroic sort. There’s no laugh track to reassure you that you’re laughing at the right things. You might feel very wrong to laugh at a lot of what’s here, in fact. But it’s the oldest comedy truth in the book: you have to laugh to keep from crying.