The Watermelon Man (1970)

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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.


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.


REVIEW: A Swedish Love Story (1970)

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1970, Europa Film Sweden

Roy Andersson
Ejnar Gunnerholm
Roy Andersson
Jörgen Persson
Kalle Boman

Ann-Sofie Kylin (Annika Hellberg)
Rolf Sohlman (Pär)
Anita Lindblom (Eva)
Bertil Norström (John Hellberg)
Lennart Tellfelt (Lasse)
Margreth Weivers (Elsa Hellberg)
Maud Backéus (Gunhild)
Arne Andersson (Arne)
Verner Edberg (Uncle Verner)
Tommy Nilsson (Roger)
Gunnar Ossiander (Pär’s Grandfather)

A tale of love and adolescence combines quite well with family drama in this film debut from Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson.

During summer, 15-year old Pär spends his time hanging with friends, going to a local hangout, where he plays pinball; and ride his moped. His father works as an auto painter and his mother is a typical housewife as they live in a small area where the paint shop is located. During a visit to his hospitalized grandfather, Pär notices a 15-year old girl named Annika. He doesn’t talk to her, but it’s clear she notices him as well. For a while these two make eyes at each other, but are too shy to talk to each other until they finally talk at a dance, which ends kind of strange. However, thanks to a few friends, Pär and Annika finally start a relationship with each other.

Meanwhile, their family lives are not so great. Annika’s father John is a successful businessman who was given the business and as a result, lost his dream of being a pianist. Because of his hatred towards his job, he begins to take it out on his wife Elsa by constantly yelling at her. Lasse, Pär’s father, constantly worries about his father, who refuses to leave the hospital. It is clear that the adults because of their own issues think that Pär and Annika are just experiencing puppy love. However, for these two teens, it is more than that.

I have to admit, I have not seen any of Roy Andersson’s films so with this being my first experience with him, it is fitting that this would be the first film I would see because of the nature of his later films. Having just graduated from film school when he brought this film to screens, Andersson successfully brings a realistic view of life with a story that meshes young love with family drama. However, while other films from this genre tend to fantasize certain aspects in the story, Andersson makes the film more real than fantasy. It is like he directed the cast to pretty much just act natural.

The film’s driving factor are the two leads of the film, Ann-Sofie Kylin and Rolf Sohlman, as the teens Annika and Pär. They are typical teenagers who do what teenagers do. They go hanging out with friends, smoke cigarettes (and we do mean a lot), play pinball, and ride mopeds. It takes some time for these two to finally interact, but to Andersson’s credit, the build-up is well worth the wait. When we finally see them in a relationship, it is clear that these two characters truly act in a way expected from teenagers in love. We get this when Annika’s family go on a trip and Pär comes to the house and they eat sandwiches, play with a tape recorder. Their “love scene”, if you want to call it that, is done so tastefully that it is rendered harmless. Nothing controversial needed here.

The adults are another story and it is their issues that make them believe that Pär and Annika are just experiencing summer love and it won’t last. In the case of Annika’s father, he disapproves of Pär because of his upbringing and expects Annika to be rich like he was. However, it is John’s frustration with having to give up his dream to become a businessman that takes its toll on his marriage. Perhaps Annika sees Pär not only as someone she loves, but in her case, an escape from the harsh realities that she must constantly endure because of her father. It seems for the most part that Pär’s father Lasse and mother Gunhild seem a bit more open to the romance between the two, yet it seems more of just their son being a teenager that perhaps he doesn’t know the true meaning of love. However, judging from the chemistry, this can be said to be a depiction of true love.

A Swedish Love Story is a beautiful film that is driven not just by the two young leads, but Andersson’s realistic look at adolescence and the realities of life as a whole, yet show how love can sometimes overcome boundaries.


DVD (Region 2)