[box cover]

Watermelon Man

Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is an offensive bigot, misogynist, and all-around jackass. It serves him right, then, when the extremely white insurance salesman wakes up in the middle of the night as a black man in Melvin Van Peebles racially charged 1970 comedy Watermelon Man. Jeff is a well-off professional with a nice house and family, yet his desire to maintain his perceived superiority encourages all kinds of odd behavior. His morning commute to work begins with him running an extra ten stops before finally getting on the bus driven by a black man, and it ends with a casual walk through the office, as he lets all of the female employees know his opinion on their place in society as sexual objects and homemakers. When the transformation occurs, lacking even a basic (if unnecessary) explanation, Jeff deals with the situation predictably — with abject denial. As he soaks in the shower, trying to wash the black off, a soulful track plays as he prays to God, and the two come together in a clever trick that shows Jeff's spirit in a truly effective manner. Believing at first that his sun lamp is defective, and then that an overuse of soy sauce has somehow caused the change in his complexion, his futile attempts at reversing the change fall short on the comedy scale. Estelle Parsons carries this part of the film as Jeff's socially conscious wife Althea, who seems tired of her husband's ignorance as she begins to empathize with the plight of minorities and can't help but be attracted to Jeff again once his skin has gained some pigment. When Jeff decides to face the world and is forced to adjust to his new appearance, the laughs kick in, but the tone gradually shifts as his life begins to fall apart. Set against the backdrop of the most volatile period of the civil rights movement, it's made very clear that while "white-faced" Jeff Gerber wears his opinions on his sleeves, he is offering opinions that other white folks have the decency to keep to themselves. While there is no doubting the relevancy of Watermelon Man's message, especially given the time period, the heavy handed comedy is a little too on the nose for the better part of the running time. Godfrey Cambridge gives a decent performance — his over-the-top white man harms the illusion somewhat, but his somber acceptance of his new place in life is delivered in touching fashion. Unfortunately, there's a little too much writing that clubs the viewer over the head, and while it doesn't dilute the message of the film in an overly damaging fashion, it certainly seems that the potential for a better picture wasn't fully tapped. Columbia TriStar presents Watermelon Man in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Melvin Van Peebles phoned in (literally) a short introduction to the film, which plays as a commentary track over the first five minutes. Trailers for other Columbia releases are included, but it's an otherwise sparse release. Keep-case.
—Scott Anderson

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