The Power to Tell Everyone’s Story: An Interview with Cheryl Dunye
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The Power to Tell Everyone’s Story: An Interview with Cheryl Dunye

Cheryl Dunye, The Watermelon Woman, 1996. Photo courtesy of the artist

This month, the Walker Cinema welcomes back two New Queer Cinema classics by Cheryl Dunye, an artist known for creating what she calls “dunyementaries”—works that blend the personal and the political, documentary and fiction, comedy and drama, to challenge cultural and social norms through her unique autobiographical lens. In advance of screenings of The Watermelon Woman and Stranger Inside, Minneapolis-based filmmaker Atlas O. Phoenix (they/them/theirs) (Little Men) caught up with Dunye to talk about her process, her time in Minnesota, and what’s next for the celebrated director. 


Filmmaker Cheryl Dunye and I met, by chance, in February 1999 at Cinema Lounge, a showcase for local, short films held each month at Minneapolis’s Bryant Lake Bowl. I had shown a short film that was a collaboration with another filmmaker, and Dunye came right over after the lights went up and told me she was taken with it. A few months later, she returned to Minnesota for a Walker residency, during which she developed the screenplay for her second film, Stranger Inside. During visits to the Minnesota Correctional Facility for Women in Shakopee, she got to know inmates, interviewed prison staff, led a writing workshop with women prisoners, and researched various facility documents. A reading of her screenplay was held at the Shakopee prison on June 26, 1999, with parts read by the inmates from the writing group. “I wanted to create a slice of life of poor women living in the 21st century,” says Dunye. “Unfortunately, many of these women happen to inhabit the prison system, and I decided to focus on what it was like inside this community.” Dunye has been busy in the two decades since her Minneapolis residency. Most recently, she wrote and directed the short film Black Is Blue, which she’s now adapting into a feature film; she’s directed episodes of Queen Sugar (OWN TV), Dear White People (Netflix), and All Rise (CBS), and in 2019, she launched Jingletown Films, her own production company, based in Oakland.

Meeting Dunye at that time, in the early development of my career, was great because I’d seen The Watermelon Woman and was a big fan of it. So having another Black, queer filmmaker admire the film I co-directed was super cool and seriously inspiring! Anticipating screenings of her films Stranger Inside (2000) and The Watermelon Woman (1996) at the Walker next next month, I connected with Dunye to discuss what she’s been doing, how she thinks about this early work, and where she’ll be going next.

ATLAS O. PHOENIX (AOP)

What was the purpose of making films for you when you started in 1996?

CHERYL DUNYE (CD)

My purpose really began when I was an undergrad at Temple. I was watching a Ronald Reagan campaign commercials, and he was using footage about—I can’t remember what the case was, but it was slandering or manipulating footage about the prison-industrial complex and implying that if we let out offenders crimes are going to happen and [the administration is] going to spike up the raid, and how dangerous it is. I was just shocked, because when I dug into the case a bit more, those weren’t the circumstances at all.  And I was like, “Look how powerful this is.” Images can be used in a variety of ways. And it depends on who the maker is and what story you put to them. So I realized then how powerful it was, and at that point I made a commitment to making film work.  The first project I did, which was my senior thesis piece at Temple, was a poem by Sapphire, an American author and poet, called Wild Thing, which was about The Central Park 5, in 1989–1990. The light bulb really came on for me at that moment. I had interviewed Sapphire after seeing her at some women’s festival in the late ’80s. She allowed me to come and meet her and hang out with her and see her world and visit New York and see what was really happening with that case. I recorded her reading that poem, came back with the footage, and I was like, “What do I do with it?” Then I saw the Reagan commercial, and I realized what to do with it: tell my own story with it, put my own images on top of it, so that it becomes a different piece. Here’s the same incident, in her voice. So that became my first piece, which got me into grad school, which kicked off my career, but it was also the moment I realized that I have a responsibility to comment on social politics and make narratives and different kinds of pieces about them. Experiment with them. So that was it. 

Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, 1996. Photo courtesy First Run Features

AOP

What does it mean to you to be a socially responsible Black lesbian filmmaker?

CD

For me it was never, “in to be out.” I was never, “in.” I was always, “out.” So it’s very important not to hide aspects of yourself. I don’t think I ever did. I never subtracted any of the titles of who I am from the work that I do. I wanted to have the ability not just to tell the “Black lesbian” story but to tell everybody’s story—especially if it’s a powerful one, one that’s about the people.

AOP

How did you come about creating your “dunyementaries?”

 CD

I think I really discovered this just out of practicality in making She Don’t Fade [her 1991 short film]. That’s really where it came up. There were certain times I was only able to do these talking heads. So whenever I got the equipment, I was able to record them. Equipment wasn’t the way it is today. Back in the early ’90s, we had these big cameras and everything. I was in school, so I would record every moment when I had the equipment, beyond shooting the narrative itself. It just came about practically, and then it turned into something that I realized was very useful.

Cheryl Dunye, Stranger Inside, 2001. Photo courtesy the filmmaker

AOP

Can you talk a bit about your residency at the Walker? 

CD

I reached out to Dean Otto about the residency, as well as Sheryl Mousley, both in the Walker film department. I was on the journey to creating a better Stranger Inside script by digging deep, as I always do, with my material to find the truth of the story and fictionalize it, because truth is fiction and fiction is truth. The Watermelon Woman had been there, and I met those folks and really wanted access to women in prison—to hear their stories, and I was looking for a place that would give me this access.   I went into the prisons and had workshops with women inmates, helping them tell their stories, teaching… giving them something. If I was going to take something from them about life in prison, I was going to give something to them. So I gave them my knowledge of screenwriting and said they could tell their stories this way, too. So there was an exchange. That’s why there was a reading in the prison in Shakopee and then there was a reading [at the Walker two days later], because you can’t take from people without giving something back.

AOP

You’ve said, “The collaborative process is crucial in making my story, their story. The power of real people telling about real experiences will ultimately help audiences to better understand who these characters are and how they got to where they are in their lives.” Tell me about your collaborative process.

CD

I think the collaborative process is one where there’s so much I can get from actors who are really digging into their character that I want to record it. So, part of my talking-head process in the dunyementary when I do make a project is to A, become friends with them and understand who they are, and, B, create talking heads around their character, who they are pre- and post-production, and the making of a film.  So when I do all my talking heads, I put those things together. So you get this really interesting perspective from the actor about what they think about the part, them in the character part, and sort of what little missing pieces about what might have come up for them after it. It’s really a beautiful kind of reflection about playing the character in the film.  

AOP

Where will the beacon shine next?

CD

All Rise, which is the show that I’m working on. It’s just become this interesting family of folks who have touched my life. Just seeing how you can be an artist, an academic, and have a great show. So I’m definitely in the position to work on great shows. My next move is to create great shows, like, The Gilda Stories, written by author, Jewelle Gomez, which I’ve optioned the rights to.

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