Monday Movie: How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) originally ran as a home video review.
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) is a documentary that works because its subject is so damn fascinating. I entered into this film with some pre-existing knowledge of Melvin Van Peebles; his work as a writer-actor and director came to mind, such as his classic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I also knew that he was something of a character but this shows us just how multifaceted and talented Van Peebles is and continues to be. Van Peebles made one of the most influential and financially successful independent films of its time that had a revolutionary influence. While the story of Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song could be a subject of its own documentary (its production is the subject of the feature film Baadasssss!), How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) chronicles Peebles’ life, which is basically a herculean feat considering the countless hats he’s worn over the years. Regardless of the strength of the filmmakers, a documentary about the life and work of Van Peebles will be compelling no matter what.
After school, and some military service, Van Peebles cut his teeth in the art world when his autobiographical novella about cable car operating, The Big Heart, was a success. Since Van Peebles’ book comprised words and images a passenger suggested he should try his hand in the motion picture business While The Big Heart earned him acclaim, it also cost him his job. An educated Black man in 1957 was considered dangerous. After shooting some short films that were all rejected by the American studios, Van Peebles went abroad, first to Holland and then to Paris, where he was encouraged by none other than Henri Langlois (a hero in French cinema) to screen his films.
Van Peebles found himself alongside multiple expatriate Black artists and jazz players (Dexter Gordon, Archie Schepp) since the city of light had been something of a haven for African Americans for decades. Van Peebles was instantly embraced by the Parisian art community, specifically the staff at the satirical magazine Hara Kiri. After becoming fluent in French, Van Peebles wrote five novels and directed his first debut feature La Permission, or The Story of a Three-Day Pass, in 1969. The film centers on a love story between a Black American soldier and a white woman during the soldier’s three-day leave and the intolerance surrounding their affair. Ironically, Le Permission got the attention of Hollywood, who had mistaken Van Peebles as a French auteur from the New Wave movement; the sad irony of American racism rears its head once again. One of my favorite things I took away from this movie was learning that Van Peebles was a contemporary of the French New Wave; and yet we hear very little about him or Le Permission when this era in film is discussed.
Learning about the underground movement of Black expats in France during the 60s is utterly absorbing and in all rights would merit a documentary of its own. In some ways, I didn’t want the film to leave Paris but Van Peebles’ return to Hollywood led to his production of Watermelon Man and his breakout Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.
I was relieved and surprised upon my realization that the documentary doesn’t spend too much time on Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song–since the movie is already famous we don’t need to–but it still shares some insight into the production and, more importantly, the cultural impact in its wake. Our present day instincts might find taglines like “rated X by an all-white jury” and starring “the Black community” funny or ironic to contemporary hipsters but Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song was rated X by an all-white jury and it was one of the first films to actually star the Black community.
In short, this is a culturally significant entry in cinema. The anger channeled here is real, and Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song articulates these frustrations with a bawdy and lively style. How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) shows us the impact of Van Peebles’ movie; the involvement with Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, its success, and the role it had in creating the Blaxploitation genre along with the inevitable backlash that came as a result of studios exploiting exploitation cinema.
After Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song, Van Peebles showed no signs of slowing down and his career in Broadway led to some hard-hitting productions. Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death and Don’t play Us Cheap were criminally overlooked in their time; he continued rewriting the rules in music with soundtracks for both of these shows and with albums As Serious as a Heart Attack and What the…You Mean I Can Sing?. And in an unlikely gambit Van Peebles became a certified options trader. Yes, Melvin Van Peebles was an options trader on Wall Street. A successful one at that; he even went on to write a book about stock options, Bold Money: A New Way to Play the Options Market. Before viewing this film, I thought Van Peebles was a funny, idiosyncratic director and actor. After this I walked away feeling inspired and enlightened knowing that there’s so much more to his story. Some figures in film have multiple credits. Orson Welles was an actor, director, producer, playwright and magician; Howard Hughes was an aviator, engineer, filmmaker, tycoon and philanthropist. The case with Van Peebles is different. I don’t think there’s enough room to list his talents in the little caption on the screenwriter, director, actor, musician, pilot, Broadway musician, political activist, provocateur, Wall Street trader, novelist, and Knight in the Legion of Honor; all that and I still feel like I’m missing something. Contributors include Elvis Mitchell, Mario Van Peebles, Marva Allen, Gordon Parks, Timothy White and Spike Lee and their insights are great but the man himself is who you want to hear.
Peebles is a pleasure to watch and his homespun wisdom and idioms shows us just how charming he can be. How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) is the study of a man who is about as real as they come; he saw that Black people were misrepresented in theater and film and he set out to change that and did. Van Peebles is a man who loves life and is getting the most out of it. Whether it’s the stage, screen, Wall Street, or the recording studio, he’s going to do things his way. That’s why this is a fascinating documentary.