What a lot of people don't realize is that 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baaadass Song was not Melvin Van Peebles' first film. The groundbreaking, independently produced Sweetback, which is often credited as starting the blaxploitation movement, was actually Van Peebles' third film. His first film was Story of a Three Day Pass, followed in 1970 by his best film, the subversive, studio-backed comedy Watermelon Man.
Jeff Gerber is your typical white American male. He has a wife, two kids, a job as an insurance salesman and, when it comes right down to it, he's a bigot. Oh, he's not the sort that will burn a cross on anyone's lawn; but he's not above making racist jokes or being an obnoxious jackass. And then one morning Jeff Gerber wakes to find that somehow he has been transformed into a black man. It must be a nightmare. That, or too much time spent tanning under the sun lamp. Whatever the reason, he can't really be a black man. Or can he? This deep dark tan will fade in a few days. Or will it? As the days pass, it becomes more and more clear that this is not a temporary problem that will soon pass. Jeff tries to make the most of his predicament, but his world begins to fall apart around him. His liberal wife (Estelle Parsons) turns out not to be that liberal as she recoils from his touch, police harass him everywhere he goes, and his once friendly neighbors are now making threatening calls, telling him to "move out nigger". Meanwhile he's trying to cope with one simple thing — he's no longer a white man.
As far as comedies go, Watermelon Man ranks as a personal favorite, along with the likes of Young Frankenstein and This is Spinal Tap. Melvin Van Peebles directs with a kinetic energy, and fuses brash, over-the-top comedy with true emotional resonance. But what really make Watermelon Man one of the best and most underrated comedies of the '70s, is the late-great Godfrey Cambridge, who stars as Jeff Gerber, the white man who wakes one morning to find he has turned into a Negro. Starting out the film made up as a white man, Cambridge gives the best performance of his career. Delivering a steady stream of one-liners, Cambridge plays Jeff with the same type of hyper fervor found in the best work of comedians like Richard Pryor or Robin Williams. For Cambridge, who is best remembered as a comedian and for playing Gravedigger Jones in Cotton Comes to Harlem and Come Back Charleston Blue, Watermelon Man allowed him to play a manic role that mixes hysterics and subtle humor. In terms of comedic black actors, past and present, there really is no one else that could have pulled off this role so well.
It seems like a stroke of luck that Watermelon Man is being released on DVD, especially considering the film's status as a lesser-known comedy. The timing no doubt has something to due with the release of BAADASSSSS!, the film that chronicles Van Peebles' making of Sweet Sweetback's Baaadass Song. But the reason for the release is irrelevant. What matters is that this classic comedy is finally available. Presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen, the film has been remastered in high definition, and looks beautiful.
The audio for Watermelon Man is presented in Dolby Digital. The sound mix is crisp and clean, which is crucial for this film, as the barrage of verbal gags could easily be lost if the mix were poor.
Watermelon Man is pretty light when it comes to extras. Director Melvin Van Peebles provides a brief audio introduction that plays out over the first five minutes of the film (making it hard to hear some choice jokes). Van Peebles' abbreviated audio track sounds like it was recorded over a speaker phone, but does offer a bit of trivia about the film (the studio original wanted someone like Jack Lemmon or Alan Arkin to play the lead in blackface, and the original ending was supposed to reveal that the whole thing was a bad dream).
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]