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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Watermelon Man (1970)

"It would serve you right, with that attitude of white supremacy."
- Althea Gerber (Estelle Parsons)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: September 14, 2004

Stars: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine
Other Stars: D'Urville Martin, Mantan Moreland, Kay Kimberley, Kay E. Kuter, Scott Garrett, Erin Moran, Emil Sitka, Paul Williams
Director: Melvin Van Peebles

MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, sexuality, racial epithets, language)
Run Time: 01h:39m:36s
Release Date: September 14, 2004
UPC: 043396050532
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+B+ C-

DVD Review

Social issue comedies are usually very much a product of their times, best left in them. The social issue is resolved or changes, or societal attitudes shift to make the comedy unfunny or funny for all the wrong reasons. Surprisingly enough, that's not the case with Melvin Van Peebles' race-shifting comedy, Watermelon Man. Despite some moments that are a bit uncomfortable today, the central theme is a universal and timeless one: the power of empathy.

White bigot and loud-mouthed insurance salesman Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge, in whiteface) is more or less happily married to Althea (Estelle Parsons) and enjoys his suburban life with his two kids, racing the bus to the bus stop on a daily basis. But everything changes one day when he wakes up black. At first insisting that it's some bizarre sunlamp accident, after hiding out a couple days he finally decides to face his world. But he soon learns that skin color counts for a good deal more than he had ever known, forcing him to face some serious issues with himself and his place in the world.

It's interesting that the cause of the transformation is never stated; the implication is that it's just divine justice for Jeff's racial smugness and disdain for the race rioters. Jeff repeatedly calls upon god to rescue him from his nightmare, but to no avail. Despairing, he decides that this must be the white man's god and that he is beyond redemption. The film also plays with and pokes fun at stereotypes; after Jeff transforms it seems everyone (including him) keeps wanting to peek inside his shorts. But such curiosity doesn't protect him, and he finds himself threatened with arrest at nearly every turn, especially when chasing after his bus. Only the blacks he formerly held in contempt treat him decently.

The picture still carries quite a few laughs, especially through Cambridge's thoroughly entertaining portrayal of the white man in the black man's skin. The supporting cast helps him along, with Oscar winner Estelle Parsons getting some good bits as his sex-starved wife who would like to be supportive in ways that Jeff doesn't quite appreciate. Comic actors such as Mantan Moreland, Kay E. Kuter (Green Acres) and Emil Sitka (a frequent Stooges foil) among the cast. Howard Caine as Jeff's greedy boss is also pretty entertaining in his disregard for race in favor of his naked avarice.

Sadly, all too little has changed in racial attitudes since 1970, beyond a few epithets becoming unacceptable. In these days of "everyone for himself" and the gospel of greed, a reminder of empathy, best understood by walking in another man's shoes, is always welcome. The film is dated mainly by some typically 1970 stylistic choices, including flashing solid tints in a few key sequences.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen picture is quite acceptable for its age. There's moderate grain visible throughout. Color is good, and particularly vivid in the color-tinted sequences. The bit rate is a mediocre 4.0 Mbps on average, though, so it seems possible that more detail could have been eked out. Edge enhancement is fairly modest for a Columbia title; perhaps they're learning.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: A 2.0 mono track is provided. It's in very good shape, with a clean and crisp sound. Dialogue is readily understandable throughout. Director Van Peebles supplies much of the music, which has a good impact and solid bass. Not earth-shaking, but much better than one would expect for the period.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English (Closed Captioned only) with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Baadasssss, Breakin' All the Rules, You Got Served
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The package bills one extra as an introduction by Melvin Van Peebles. But it really is a telephone interview, played over the opening scenes of the film on a second track, like a non-specific commentary. While it's short, there is a good deal of interesting information, including the shocking revelation that the lead was originally meant to be played by a white man in blackface, which would have made it seem like thermonuclear waste today. He also discusses the (unfilmed) alternate ending. Three "urban" trailers are included, but not one for the feature proper, which is a shame. Chaptering is not the usual Columbia 28 stops, but only a meagre 12 chapters, too few for this film.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

A surprisingly still relevant comedy with some excellent performances. Not much for extras, but it's a pretty good transfer.


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