What happens when a racist goes through a radical change and is forced to live life as the same type of person he is totally against? Melvin Van Peebles may just have the answer in this raucous comedy that tackles a very sensitive matter that still exists today.
Jeff Gerber is a Caucasian insurance agent who loves to spend his mornings working out and running past the local bus in order to make the bus stop that takes him to his job. His wife Althea watches the recent riots in the city while Jeff doesn’t care what happens to the rioters. He makes wisecracks towards anyone who is African-American much to the chagrin of his fellow co-workers, bus patrons, and even his wife. However, on this fateful day, Jeff’s life is about to change.
That night, he wakes up to go to the bathroom and when he sees himself, he inexplicably becomes African-American. Suddenly, his life takes a turn for the worse. He gets accused of stealing, virtually gets a promotion at work because of diversity, gets an admirer in co-worker Erica, and becomes the ridicule of the community. When Jeff’s attempts to change his skin color back to white fail on a consistent level, he soon learns the hard way that his old ways of being a racist has caught up to him and he must learn to adapt or face some dire consequences.
The tagline of this 1970 film is “A funny thing happened to Jeff Gerber. This won’t happen to you so you can laugh.” Screenwriter Herman Raucher intended this to be a comedy and while it is quite a funny film for its time, it can be considered sensitive due to the topic of the film: racism. In reality, racism is truly not a laughing matter, but director Melvin Van Peebles decided to make light of the situation with this film. Eventually becoming a pioneer in the “Blaxploitation” genre, Van Peebles does pretty well in terms of directing the film.
What Van Peebles came up with can be considered ingenious. When producers first thought of the idea, they had planned to cast a Caucasian actor dressed in blackface. This has been done to death since the days of Amos and Andy and some of the early Hollywood films as well. What Van Peebles offered was to have the producers cast comic actor Godfrey Cambridge, an African-American, dress in whiteface for the first ten to fifteen minutes of the film before becoming Jeff Gerber, the African-American, by being himself. This would be one of only few lead roles for Cambridge, but he does a great job here. The comedy really comes from his attempts to become white again with at times, disastrous results and his racing against the bus in the opening of the film.
The supporting cast does quite well, especially Estelle Parsons (who later gained fame as playing Roseanne’s mother on her hit television series in the 80’s and 90’s) because we get her point of view on the matter involving her husband. It is apparent that while she knows her husband is white, the fact he becomes black begins to affect their marriage. However, it can be considered strange because she seems to watch the riots as if she supports African-Americans yet she doesn’t feel comfortable being married to one. There are some of the classic derogatory terms towards African-Americans as well as the attitudes at that time, just when equal rights have just become known.
If you are truly sensitive to racism, The Watermelon Man may not be your cup of tea. However, director Melvin Van Peebles truly gets his point across with this tale. The film would become influential on later films such as Soul Man and perhaps, Women from Mars, with what can happen when one must change and learn to somewhat adapt with the intention of learning a very hard lesson in life.
WFG RATING: B
A Columbia Pictures production. Director: Melvin Van Peebles. Producer: John B. Bennett. Writer: Herman Raucher. Cinematography: W. Wallace Kelley. Editing: Carl Kress.
Cast: Godfrey Cambridge, Estelle Parsons, Howard Caine, D’Urville Martin, Mantan Moreland, Kay Kimberly, Scott Garrett, Erin Moran.