Scott Garrett, Godfrey Cambridge, Erin Moran, and Estelle Parsons in Watermelon Man (1970)

Watermelon Man (1970) Whiteface

Watermelon Man is a film that uses whiteface to counter racial stereotypes. The main character, Jeff Gerber, involuntarily transforms into a black man and is forced to face the hardships of being a black man in America. Which is more true to what it’s like to be born African American.

Contrarily, in Soul Man the main character Mark Watson voluntarily takes tanning pills to darken his skin. He has a choice in who he is and how is he is perceived. This is one of the biggest flaws of the film because it implies that people of color have a choice in something that is due to reproductive patterns. At any moment Mark has the option to return to being a white man. He ultimately still possesses privilege, which was taken away from Jeff in Watermelon Man. 

Soul Man (1986) Blackface

Another strong contrast between the films is their use of racial cross-dressing. Watermelon Man uses whiteface for the first few minutes of the film while Soul Man uses blackface for most of the film. This contrast is due to the decisions and cultural understandings of the creators of these films. Melvin Van Peebles made the decision to have Watermelon Man use whiteface for the opening of the film and then have Godfrey Cambridge appear in his normal state.

This decision helps to normalize blackness. Watermelon Man was carefully directed by Peebles to openly critiques Hollywood and America’s racial practices (Gates 9). Steve Miner and Carol Black on the other hand ultimately argue that they had good intentions when creating Soul Man, but they seem to have gotten caught up in creating an entertaining and “funny” film.

This film was created at the expense of black people. Miner’s use of blackface for almost the entirety of the film reinforced the notion the whiteness is the norm. This is reinforced through Thomas Howell’s unnatural appearance and behavior.

It’s important to be aware that all racial cross-dressing can be offensive and that whiteface is not an exception. There are films like White Chicks that fail to convey a meaningful message and simply about entertainment. White Chicks was created as a comedy at the expense of white women there was not a revolutionary message hidden with it.

After close analysis of Watermelon Man and Soul Man it is clear that a director’s skills and cultural understanding have a strong impact on how controversial films are received by their audiences.

Films                                                                                                                                               Further Reading

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