Director Melvin Van Peebles is best known for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song a film that, while not exactly underrated, remains on the fringes thanks to its unclassifiable oddness. Pound for pound, the best film of the Blaxploitation era, it’s a gonzo explosion of rage and acrid humor, a picaresque journey injected with avant-garde iconoclasm, offering America’s closest answer to the surrealist swagger of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Yet singular as it remains, Sweet Sweetback did not spring from a vacuum, and could not have been made without Watermelon Man. Van Peebles’ 1970 comedy was one of incendiary and subversive films made within the studio system. The film was far from a failure in its time, turning a modest profit, but studio interference convinced Van Peebles to ditch his three-picture contract with Columbia, funding his next feature through independent financing.

Watermelon Man is remembered as a precursor to a more distinctive, innovative follow-up. Its diminished reputation ignores how remarkable this weird comedy is on its own terms and how well it has aged, its unwavering focus on the brass tacks of discrimination as timely as ever.

Van Peebles’ second feature plays out in an unnamed suburb, home to corn fed doofus Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge, initially in whiteface). Surrounded by a cookie-cutter ‘60s family, living in a house that would soon be used as the setting for “The Partridge Family,” Jeff is an insurance salesman obsessed with keeping up appearances. Introduced via a bizarre exercise routine – the first indication of suburban life as an act of sustained performance – he’s also a garish caricature of stereotypical whiteness, the inverse of familiar depictions of black characters.

Jeff pretends to be open-minded, but his conservatism runs deep, condescending to black lunch counter employees and sneering at race riots on television. But this character isn’t the target of Herman Raucher’s acidic script, which borrows from Kafka to dig deep into a culture that spawns and fosters casual racism. The film’s early scenes establish a routine day for Jeff. He wakes up the following morning with his skin visibly darkened. Blaming the incident on a malfunctioning heat lamp, he tries to solve the problem with home remedies involving lotion, plaster and large quantities of milk. Nothing works, and while the film plays up the absurdity of the situation, it maintains an impressively stern focus, filtering the broad humor through small character moments, mirroring the weirdness of the situation through an extended series of color filters, odd compositions and canted angles.

Watermelon Man posterMost satires would stop pushing at this point, content to establish the double standard of discrimination, the ridiculousness of judging a man by his skin color. But Watermelon Man is not satisfied with simply mining the situation for laughs. The film is intent on determining the exact outlines of a community’s intolerance. Following his transformation, Jeff’s previous eccentric behavior, like his habit of racing the commuter bus he takes to work each morning, turns into antisocial unruliness. Police hound him at every turn, his office boss hands down a sneaky but swift demotion and Jeff is knocked down the social ladder, one rung at a time.

An extensive series of medical tests reveal that while Jeff isn’t suffering from hay fever or food allergies, he has technically been part African American all along, a fateful chromatic shift pushing that sliver of heritage into full bloom. This realization terrifies him at first, but before long Jeff, formerly a conformist blindly coasting along on life’s pleasures, reconsiders his place in the world with increasing anger. It becomes clear that this comedy is not just a silly role-reversal scenario, but a parable of black power. Jeff was all too happy to conform to the standards of white behavior in order to get ahead. Now he takes hold of his blackness, finally free to be himself.

Liberated from standard social niceties and sitcom conventions, Jeff develops a new persona, calling out casual bigots, fleecing his bullying neighbors even as they force him out of his home. He starts his own business, providing insurance to local black families formerly denied adequate coverage. He sleeps with a supposedly tolerant Norwegian co-worker, and then dresses her down for her blatant fetishization of his skin, identifying the seeds of prejudice in a supposedly liberal mindset. By the time the film ends, he’s training formerly servile black characters in martial arts, a call to arms that dramatizes how far we’ve come from the broad living rooms and lawns of the film’s start. Watermelon Man predates Blaxploitation, but it’s a vital bridge between that genre’s bold statements and an earlier era of lax studio restrictions and vibrant experimentation, and its impressive accomplishments deserve far more recognition.

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