Melvin Van Peebles’s only foray into Hollywood filmmaking, Watermelon Man is one of the most audacious, radically conceived works to be financed by a major American studio in the 1970s. Comedian Godfrey Cambridge delivers a virtuoso performance (initially in whiteface) as Jeff Gerber, a loudmouthed, bigoted white insurance salesman whose sitcomlike suburban existence is jarringly upended when he wakes up to discover, in a wild spin on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, that he has become a Black man. What ensues is a ferocious satire of society’s racist double standards that gradually transforms into an empowering portrait of awakening Black consciousness, executed with a mix of acerbic irreverence and deadly serious political commentary by a relentlessly subversive Van Peebles.
Melvin Van Peeble’s Watermelon Man is found on the second dual-layer disc in Criterion’s new box set, Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the new 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been sourced from a recent 4K restoration conducted by Sony. The 35mm original camera negative was the primary source for the restoration.
Indicator released the film on Blu-ray in the UK last year and though the end results were generally okay it was clear Sony had supplied them with an older master, more than likely the one Sony used for their own 2004 DVD edition. This new presentation offers a substantial improvement in most areas, particularly in the area of detail and clarity, and it's not much of a competition. Film grain looks far more natural and cleaner here, lacking that clumpy and noisy look found on the Indicator edition, and the finer textures and details are rendered a bit clearer, the stitching and patterns found in the various jackets that appear throughout showing one of the clearer examples of these improvements. Dynamic range is a little wider, allowing for cleaner shadows and more detail in the darker areas of a scene, which includes some nighttime sequences later in the film.
There is one area that I question and that area is the colour grading. In what has become a common look for recent restorations the film does take on a significantly warmer look in comparison to previous releases, layering a yellow/green tint on everything. The grays become significantly warmer, and the whites lean a bit more yellow. To be fair, the Indicator looked off as well, with several scenes taking on a far pinker tone, but even if what we get with this restoration isn't the worst I've seen this feels to go too far in the other direction. I can't help but feel the proper balance is somewhere in the middle, but then again my viewings of the film are limited to video.
There are still a couple of dupey looking shots in the film, either due to a frame being blown up or title cards being added, but these are clearly inherent to the original film, and damage is also not a concern. Overall, the image is clean and stable with a nice film texture, looking far cleaner and sharper in comparison to Indicator's. The colours are just a bit questionable.
The film’s monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless 1.0 PCM. The music comes out sounding strong, showcasing some nice depth and impressive range; it’s clear and sharp, never coming off distorted. Dialogue is also clear with excellent fidelity.
Sadly, like all previous releases for the film, including Indicator’s, the special features here are slim, with only an audio introduction recorded by director Melvin Van Peebles in 2004 having anything to do specifically with the film. The 5-minute introduction was originally recorded for Sony’s 2004 DVD and played over the film’s opening through an alternate audio track. Indicator took that audio and had it edited into a video feature by Michael Brooke, playing his intro (which sounds to have been recorded over the phone) over photos and scenes from the film. Criterion has licensed that video feature from Indicator and present it here. The filmmaker explains how he came to do the film, how he talked the studio into casting a black actor in the role (Jack Lemmon was interested, meaning he would have done most of the film in black-face) and then how the success of the film led to a 3-picture deal with Columbia, though that was pulled after he released Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song. I assume they took offense to it. It’s still unfortunate that the discussion is incredibly short, but I’m assuming that’s all he was willing to provide around the film.
Indicator had also included a great audio interview with Van Peebles, recorded for The Guardian in 1996. Unfortunately, that feature is not found here nor anywhere else in the set. Criterion instead includes the 2005 documentary on Van Peebles and his film career, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), directed by Joe Angio. The 85-minute documentary (which was previously available on DVD) plays out as most documentaries of its type do, providing interviews with family and colleagues (including his children Mario and Megan) along the way, though with a very energetic pace. It starts out on his early life and then follows the path he would take to make his first feature film, The Story of a Three Day Pass, Van Peebles having to move to Europe to be able to get a chance at directing, despite already being a published author in the States with a couple of short films under his belt. From here the documentary quickly covers his other films before moving on to his stage work, which includes the stage-to-film hybrid (where the stage performances were used as rehearsals for what would become the film) Don’t Play Us Cheap. There’s also a small (and funny) section on his “singing,” where we get a mix of opinions, but it ultimately comes down to “it is what it is.” And for anyone undecided on his singing talents you get the bonus of hearing Van Peebles’ renditions of Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do and Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart to help you come to a conclusion on that subject.
The documentary’s short running time prevents the film from focusing too much time on any one subject, but of all of the features in the set it provides the best overview of his life and work. Still, I'm just a little frustrated we can’t seem get any sort of extensive feature around the film.
Similar to other releases for Watermelon Man Criterion’s edition lacks a significant feature around the film itself, but the presentation—despite the questionable colour grading—looks sharp and clean.