Since the George Floyd protests and riots Amazon Prime has been suggesting the viewing of many classic movies about race and culture. This week, we bit and watched Watermelon Man, a 1970’s comedy about an arrogant, racist white insurance salesman who wakes up one morning as a black man. Starring Godfrey Cambridge as Jeffery Gerber, a white man who who is racist, sexist and self-centered and his wife Althea.
After waking up black one moring, Gerber thinks it was just a matter of his overusing a tanning bed every day, but he soon finds out his new black skin isn’t washing off and isn’t fading. So he eventually goes out into the world as a black man and realizes within minutes what it’s like to go out into the world as black man.
He’s called “n-gger” by his neighbors, was blamed for robbing people on the street and was chased by police simply for jogging through his neighborhood. His wife eventually leaves him because although she loves him, she doesn’t want to be “married to a negro” and worries what the neighbors would think if they started having “mixed negro” children. He eventually settles in with his new look and the movie ends with him being alone, working a menial job.
The movie was supposed to end with Gerber waking up to find out it was all a dream, but producers admitted they forgot to shoot that scene. The movie was a financial success in 1970, raking in $1,000,000. Sadly, Cambridge, an up and coming stand up comic alongside the likes of Bill Cosby and Nipsey Russell passed away six years later at the age of 43, suffering a heart attack.
The movie is a bit strange cinematically, but it fits into what was actually in-style during the early 1970’s and late 1960’s. It’s doubtful such a movie could be made today without being boycotted or called racist, but it does a great job of bringing people in to the plight of black Americans with a twist of comedy and surprise.