Watermelon Man (1970)

Article 3149 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-26-2010
Posting Date: 3-29-2010
Directed by Melvin Van Peebles
Featuring Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine
Country: USA
What it is: Satirical fantasy

An obnoxious white insurance agent wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a black man. When his desperate attempts to turn back to white fail, he begins to find his life changing…

In some ways, this is similar to the previous year’s CHANGE OF MIND in that a white man gets to experience what it’s like to be black. It’s an aggressive, over-the-top movie. The first half plays like a slapstick movie and is too shrill for its own good, but it does serve its purpose; by contrasting how people react to his obnoxious behavior when he’s white and how they react to it when he’s black, it does manage to show the various manifestations of racism in action. Estelle Parsons, here playing another white wife of a black man as in THE UFO INCIDENT (albeit one who was initially married to a white man) portrays a character who serves as an interesting example; though a liberal by nature (she watches news broadcasts about the race riots), she finds actual marriage to a black man to be ultimately unsupportable. The movie is quite effective; it’s both sad and fascinating to watch how this initially unlikable boor is forced to adjust to a new life and, ultimately, a new world. There’s some very interesting names in the cast. Erin Moran (who plays the man’s daughter) would go on to play Joanie on “Happy Days”, former Three Stooges foil Emil Sitka pops up as a delivery man, Mae Clarke appears as an old woman in her last movie, and Paul Williams has a cameo as an employment clerk. The most interesting cast member, though, is none other than Mantan Moreland as the man who works at the lunch counter; his reaction to the main character’s change gave me the biggest laugh in the movie, and I’m glad Melvin Van Peebles decided to use him.

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