I first saw this movie a long time ago… mid 1970s or so…
To be truthful, I remember the basic premise of the movie but little else. So, when I got this in the mail and prepared to watch it, I did so with a little apprehension… would the jokes, and that premise I mentioned, be old, dated and hackneyed? Or, would it still be topical and off-kilter funny? In a phrase… would it still be a social satire that is somewhat politically incorrect yet delivers its message with a right on the nose to its intended audience… and its target?
First, what the hell am I talking about? Right?
The movie is Watermelon Man… it’s directed by Melvin Van Peebles…
The nut of the story is this…
Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is a white insurance agent who lives in an upscale suburban neighborhood ($37,000 house which was a decent chunk of change back then). He has a liberal wife, Althea (Estelle Parsons), and, two kids, Janice (Erin Moran… right… that Erin Moran… Joanie Cunningham of Happy Days), and, Burton (Scott Garrett).
Jeff is also a bigoted, chauvinistic, snob, and, a fitness freak.
Then he goes through a major metamorphosis that irrevocably changes his life.
As the film opens, he’s busy exercising while his wife is trying to capture a few more minutes of sleep. She can hear the clanking of his pumping iron and doing his exercises as she tosses and turns and grimaces because she can’t sleep due to his noisy exercises. The camera switches to him doing the exercises including working out naked under a sun lamp.
Then, later, as he and the family have breakfast an ever present TV is showing news about civil rights marches … and, Jeff makes a comment about the darkies. He also makes snarky remarks to, and about, the wife and kids.
Then, there is a scene where the kids want to watch as dad goes out to race the bus. Yep, every morning he goes out to catch the bus for work… however … the game is that he trots along (runs?) as the bus has to go slowly and keep stopping to pick up passengers. The driver and the riders are all rooting for Jeff to lose… but he never does. He always makes it to the last stop before the bus arrives, and, gets on the bus before it gets onto the freeway and takes everyone downtown to the business center.
When he gets on the bus the snark doesn’t stop… he makes comments to the black bus driver and as he plops his ass down, he makes further snarky comments to all the passengers. Equally caustic although since they are all white passengers none of the remarks are necessarily bigoted.
When he gets downtown he goes into a diner where he grabs his usual… a juice or some other sort of drink… and a black counterman waits on him. Yep, he makes all sorts of innuendo about black people to the counterman. The counterman, who I’ve seen in countless old movies and if anyone reading this review has watched those types of movies then you will recognize this guy immediately and also, like me, not know his name. He’s the guy you need an older black man to play the role of servant or whatever in one of those old movies then this guy was probably the actor they went and got.
Jeff head off and goes into his office. He meets some folks in the elevator and then makes more comments to the black elevator operator who grimaces behind Jeff’s back. Jeff talks to a passenger and asks him to come over for barbecue and the guy makes nervous nelly excuse why he can’t go.
He gets off the elevator and walks into the place he works… a secretary says the boss wants to see him. .he makes more rude comments… as he walks to his office he keeps on insulting every body in his path all the time thinking he is just one royally humorous and funny dude…the life of the party so to speak.
He meets up with another, and this time a very buxom, secretary and the routine goes like this…
Erica: (annoyed) Nor-vay!
Jeff: Nor-vay, Sve-den, what difference does it make? As long as you’re a blonde! (squeezes her ass).. Are you?! — just curious! — I mean, how many girls are really blonde all the way? Collars AND cuffs! Hahahahmmm!
Erica: Excuse me Mr. Gerber, but I must get back to my desk.
Jeff: A dollar if you walk past and stop short! Two dollars if you trot! Five dollars if you run! And ten dollars if you’re really a blonde! Hahahahmmm!
The Boss: Gerber, in here!
Jeff: Yes sir, Mr. Townsend! (to Erica): And fifty dollars if you’re a fella!
After he goes into the bosses office, the boss tells him that he is a pain in the ass. But, obviously this guy must be making decent sales at his insurance gig or he would have been fired long ago.
Later when he’s home and the family is having supper the ubiquitous TV is on with more news about civil rights demonstrators, including some militant/riot scenes, and, he makes more racist comments. His wife takes the tack that we…white peeps… need to be more tolerant. Yep, she’s the liberal conscience of the movie… (more later)
Then the two of them are in bed…she wants to get a little frisky. It seems Wednesdays night is the night reserved for said friskiness… she reminds him that its Wednesday and he says no its not…its Tuesday… she corrects him and he makes some excuse… So even sex is somehow an issue with this guy. Al Bundy about 20 or 30 years ahead of his time.
That’s all in the first 30 minutes or so of the movie… it’s a long setup for what’s about to happen…
So far the movie is sort of disappointing. The jokes are…meh… somewhat funny but I’ve heard them all before. But, this is a movie that was made in 1970… and back then it was something of novel type of movie to be made by a mainstream major studio (For Van Pebbles… one and done for a major mainstream studio, in fact.)
The entire rest of this review is one big spoiler so take that into consideration before proceeding to read further…Buttttt… the movie begins to kick into a higher gear.
Just as we’re learning about Jeff’s routine, something unusual happens… he wakes and goes into the bathroom and sees an image in the mirror…
It’s a black face and he yells thinking its a burglar… then he realizes it’s him… he tries rubbing his face clean but he is black. He thinks it’s a nightmare, and pinches himself and yells… but it doesn’t go away.
Director Peebles uses a movie mechanism that I’ve never been fond of that was used quite a bit back around the time this movie was made…a sort of psychedelic zooming of the camera visual graphic. It was used to punctuate a scene where something had happened that was important… that the viewer needed their attention drawn to it… it was, and still is, a useless mechanism… and it makes the statement that your audience is too stupid to understand that something of some magnitude just happened… Peebles uses this mechanism a few other times and I think it hurts rather than abets the message and the visual of the movie.
Back to Jeff… He tries all sorts of things to change himself back to white. There are some funny bits as his wife finds a colored man in the bathroom and freaks. Jeff has to convince her it’s him. And, Jeff is having all sorts of conniption fits about being colored… or looking like one of the darkies now.
Including bathing in milk, wrapping his head in plaster and then going to the colored part of town to one of “their” pharmacies so he can buy “the stuff they use in order to make themselves look white.” You name it; he buys it… everything possible… then rushes home and tries them all… of course, to no avail.
Then, Jeff believes this to be the result of spending too much time under the tanning machine.
He then decides he needs to get on the phone and complain to the company that manufactured the tanning device. The upshot of the scenario is there is a pretty slick phone comedy bit… sort like the bit Bob Newhart used to do and who knows maybe Bob stole it from here… where Jeff is discussing the tanning machines over-cooking him… they wind up telling him they will send out a replacement machine.
About that delivery… later there is a wonderful slapstick scene where he and the delivery man… a staple character from the Three Stooges comedy movie series… get into a rolling around on the floor tussle. The upshot being that the delivery guy says it’s all his fault; it’s obvious he got the wrong address… because “This guy needs a tanning machine, like Fred Astaire needs dance lessons.”
Needless to say all of his attempts to go back white meet with abject failure.
His attempts to change his skin color fail.
The next day, Jeff faces reality and decides he better just get up and go to work.
He gets ready for work… and starts off just like when he was white… he races the bus. Everything is fine… or so Jeff thinks… as he going past the lawns and houses of suburbia… a woman watering her lawn scream and squirts water all over a passerby who is staring at Jeff…
A black man in white suburbia… this neighborhood???
Then as the area becomes more commercial… some stores, gas stations, small shops… some white people notice this black man running, and, they start to chase after him. As he cuts through a parking lot a cop car pulls in front of him; the cops get out and start questioning him and asking what’s in his briefcase. The white peeps who were chasing him start to gather around and make surly comments. The bus pulls up and the driver off and demands to know what’s going on to one of his regular customers. Jeff opens the briefcase and says just shoes the cops make him try the shoes on when they fit they still say they don’t know Jeff did but that he can go.
The bus driver walks Jeff away and back to the bus and hey have a quick convo…
Driver: Hey… ah, what happened to you man… uh, how come I never noticed you were colored before?
Jeff: Because I was never colored before!
Driver: Oh, it happened just like that, huh?
Jeff: Just like that!
Driver: Well, when you get back on the bus, just sit down and cool it – they don’t love you, you know.
Jeff: *Nobody* loves me – big deal!
Driver: Well just don’t make any trouble.
Jeff: Listen, I am *not* colored!
Driver: I know, I’m Spanish myself.
The real interesting thing is that even though white Jeff was a racist asshole towards the driver once he became black Jeff and was being harassed, the driver jumped to defend him.
When he arrives at his office everyone is standoffish and begins to treat him as one of them colored folks. Only two people aren’t put off by his “color”… the Norwegian secretary and his boss who after some back and forth tells him cut back on the tanning and to get to work.
Jeff make some phone calls and makes an appointment with a client and tells him he’ll meet him at some ritzy private club.
When tries to enter the club a doorman stops him and tells him he can’t go in… Jeff protests and says he has to meet a client… long story short: nope he ain’t going in. A crowd is beginning to form of everyday street folks and worker bee types of people… black and white… and a riot is about to happen. Enter the cops again…
In the next scene he is being lead to his boss’ office and the cops ask the boss if Jeff works for him… boss says yes… cops make some rude comments.
As the cops leave… Jeff says to all his staring co-workers.. “Make a list of all those articles that have been stolen, and, any of you who have been raped… please… report to the dispensary. Any of you who are interested in tap dancing, gospel singing, boxing lessons…please… come into my office…
The sexy secretary walks past him and slips him a piece of paper… he looks at it and it’s a phone number. He tucks it into his pocket… She interested in him now that he’s a black man.
During his lunch break, he makes an appointment with his doctor who cannot explain Jeff’s “condition” either. But says he will do some blood tests and contact some colleagues but theorizes that it’s probably some type of allergic reaction.
Watermelon man has now taken a sudden leap forward… the sarcasm and satire is very good even if it is sometimes a tad over the top…
But, the movie takes it into the next gear when he returns home and he realizes everything he is doing to change back to white is not working… calls from his doctor indicate there are no revelations from any of the tests and he finally starts going into panic attack mode and screams… “I’m a nigger!”
The next day at work Jeff’s boss suggests that they could drum up extra business with a “Negro” salesman. He says he’ll assign his white accounts to another sale rep but he’ll still get his commissions… but from now on he should concentrate on the untapped black market…
Returning home thar night he finds Althea afraid to answer the phone. He doesn’t understand why until he receives a call from a man telling him to ‘”Move out, nigger”.
Another night he comes home and finds his neighbors there who offer to buy his $37,000 for $40 grand… after some slick negotiating he them to pony up $100,000.
After they leave, Althea says that he took advantage of those people… Jeff says no he didn’t, he just made a good business deal… in another scne he comes home and asks where the kids… she says with her sister in another town.
That night when they are in bed Jeff is the one that now wants to get frisky and suddenly she doesn’t…
He gets up out of bed after some arguing and finds the sexy secretary’s number; uses it and they wind up in the sack.
That, also, winds up being another scene where he realizes he is just being used for his blackness… they argue and he eventually calls her out as nothing more than another racist. She begins to screams at him… . as he walks away from her apartment building she sticks her head out the window and starts screaming “Rape!!!!”
Next, the doctor tells him there is nothing medial science can do and its probalby some hidden gene that has suddenly come to life.. and… he can give him the number of another doctor that he would be more comfortable with… one of his own kind.
Another climatic moment in this movie is when he finally confronts Althea about his blackness with the upshot being he calls her out and says his being black is now a problem… he thought she was the big liberal and all… and, she says she is liberal… just not that liberal.
Then Althea leaves her husband goes to be with the children…
Jeff also finds out that when he meets with most of his new black clients that he can’t take advantage of them and sell them insurance that they either can’t afford or don’t need. Instead he starts to counsel them on how to better manage their money and use it to make their lives better. His boss bitches and he tells the bossman that he quits and goes off to start his own business wit hthe seed money he got from his racist neighbors.
His transformation is now complete as we see Jeff ensconced within the black community. He is now hanging in black bars… owns a building… and is more or less a sort of big shot and well liked.
As the movie begins to come to a close Jeff is hanging with his new black buddies in a bar one night and sees some white undercover cops come in and shake down some of the clients without any reason. Jeff is obviously disturbed about this.
And, then the movies ends with him practicing martial arts with what appears to be a group of working class blacks, apparently having become one of the militants he used to put down.
I found that ending as weak. Still, it’s better than the one that the studio wanted Van Peebles to use… Jeff waking up to find he dreamt the whole thing.
The bottom line is that this is a funny movie… it’s a decent social satire about what was going on around 1970. It’s a tad dated and I’m not sure if the movie’s premise would work in today’s world. But, the humor still does work… and… the ending is better than what the original script called for but still I think is weak. I’m not sure what ending would have really worked here… maybe Jeff getting busted during a civil rights march or something.
My recommendation is that if you can find this on YouTube or Netflix or buy it on Amazon for less than $10, then get it and watch it. But, I wouldn’t spend more than that to see it.
Godfrey Cambridge makes his movie work and is actually somewhat of a revelation here if anyone is familiar with his standup work… at least what I used to see on shows like Ed Sullivan. All I can say is Google it all.
As for a rating… I’m stuck here…. I wouldn’t call this an 8… or a “Wait till this movie is on sale for DVD, its worth buying, but you don’t have to buy it at full price.” But, then it’s not aa low as a 5 or 6…. “Rent it only. Don’t spend too much on it unless it’s on clearance”, or, “Got HBO? Then watch it. Don’t have it? Borrow it from someone who hit the clearance rack at a pawnshop. Worth going out of your way to watch it, but not WAY out of the way.”
I’m gonna say it’s a 6 and ¾.
It’s a dated movie but is damn well worth watching… if you can find it; get it and check it out.
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