by Novotny Lawrence on Sep 23, 2020

Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1970 is an online Cinema St. Louis event examining 14 films that are celebrating their 50th anniversary. Every Monday at 7:30 p.m. from Aug. 10-Oct. 26, CSL is hosting a livestream discussion of a film that originally premiered in 1970.

A discussion of Melvin Van Peebles' The Watermelon Man and Ossie Davis’ Cotton Comes to Harlem will take place Monday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Novotny Lawrence — associate professor at Iowa State University, author of Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre, editor of Documenting the Black Experience, and co-editor of Beyond Blaxploitation — will provide introductory remarks and lead the discussion, facilitated by CSL executive director Cliff Froehlich.

As a supplement to the discussion, The Lens offers an essay on the two films by Lawrence.

Watermelon Man and Cotton Comes to Harlem: Black Filmmaking in Hollywood

By Novotny Lawrence, Ph.D.

Watermelon Man: 1970 / 100 min. / USA / Dir. by Melvin Van Peebles / Opened in select U.S. cities on May 27, 1970
Cotton Comes to Harlem: 1970 / 97 min. / USA / Dir. by Ossie Davis / Opened in select U.S. cities on May 27, 1970

When motion pictures emerged as a popular form of entertainment, they reaffirmed and perpetuated commonly held stereotypes about Black people that affected them socially, economically, and politically. From early silent films such as Thomas Edison’s “A Watermelon Eating Contest” (1896) to alleged masterpieces like Gone with the Wind (1939), Blacks were depicted as loyal toms, bumbling coons, sassy and overbearing mammies, tragic mulattoes, and savage bucks, while in film after film their White counterparts were presented as a range of well-rounded, multidimensional characters.

Importantly, Hollywood’s discriminatory practices also extended behind the camera as for years Hollywood studios did not provide Blacks opportunities to direct films. In fact, it was not until 1968 that Life magazine photographer-turned-filmmaker Gordon Parks became the first man to helm a Hollywood movie when he directed The Learning Tree. Two years later, film executives at Columbia Studios and United Artists granted Melvin Van Peebles and Ossie Davis opportunities to seize the means of production on Watermelon Man (1970) and Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), respectively. Both directors used their films to challenge Hollywood's skewed representations of Black identity, life, and culture, and to pave the way for ensuing generations of Black filmmakers.

Van Peebles broke into Hollywood via Europe, where he had moved in part due to the lack of opportunities for Blacks in Hollywood. While overseas, he made a number of short films and wrote several novels, including The Story of a Three Day Pass, which he adapted for the screen. Pass tells the story of Turner, an African-American GI stationed in France, who while on a short leave from his base strikes up a romance with a white French woman named Miriam. The couple spends two happy nights together professing their love for one another. But their romantic dream is deferred when a group of white G.I.s from Turner’s company spots the couple together and reports the interracial romance to their superior officer. Livid to find that he has been courting a white woman, the officer confines Turner to his quarters. By the time he is able to phone Miriam again, he finds that she is off spending time with another man.

Van Peebles submitted Pass to the 1967 San Francisco International Film Festival, which he attended as a French delegate.1 The film was an instant hit, winning the Critic’s Choice Award, and Van Peebles was quickly and incorrectly heralded as the U.S.’s first African-American director. In the aftermath of his success, Columbia Studios began aggressively pursuing him. Though initially hesitant to accept the studio’s offer, Van Peebles eventually signed a three-picture deal with Columbia and agreed to direct Watermelon Man.

Watermelon Man tells the story of Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge), a privileged and bigoted White man who epitomizes the so-called American Dream. He is firmly middle class, with a wife, two kids, and a nice home in the suburbs. Gerber’s perfect existence is thrown into chaos one morning when he awakens to find that overnight he has transformed into a Black man. The remainder of the film chronicles Gerber as he learns what it means to live in a society in which Black men endure racial discrimination, are fetishized by white women, and face challenges navigating spaces where the color of their skin invites the specter of violence.

At the time of its release, Watermelon Man was a unique racial satire, but Van Peebles’ experiences with Columbia executives during the production demonstrate the challenges associated with centering Blackness in a Hollywood film. Particularly, the director explained, “Columbia’s approach to the film was to sacrifice real social commentary on race in favor of making a ‘feel good’ movie that would appeal to White audiences.”2 Rather than succumbing to the studio’s demands and soften what he envisioned as a biting social satire, Van Peebles craftily negotiated the situation. For instance, Columbia execs initially wanted to cast a high-profile White actor such as Jack Lemmon or Alan Arkin to play the lead role in Watermelon Man. Van Peebles subtly pushed back, requesting that a Black actor star in the film and asking for a supporting role for Black actor Mantan Moreland. Aside from that, he left all other casting decisions to the studio.3

In addition, the Van Peebles expressed concern over Watermelon Man’s original ending, which saw Gerber awaken in the middle of the night to find that his transformation into a Black man had been nothing more than a bad dream. Leery of Van Peebles’ desire for the character to remain Black at film’s end, Columbia execs agreed to let him to shoot two versions of the ending. When the film was completed, they would later determine which to use based on test audiences’ reactions to them.4

Although casting a Black actor and negotiating with execs to shoot two endings may seem like rather small victories, each had a significant impact on Watermelon Man. Had a White actor played Gerber, he would have spent the majority of the film in blackface makeup, harkening back to the minstrel tradition that for decades informed early Hollywood films and Black images in popular culture more broadly. By casting Black actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge in the role, Van Peebles subverted blackface performance as Cambridge appeared in a very unconvincing whiteface for the film’s first 10 minutes. As Racquel Gates explains, “On this micro level of aesthetics, Watermelon Man uses whiteface to reverse the logic of whiteness as norm. By placing an African American actor in white makeup to portray the ‘normal’ Jeff Gerber, the film throws into question the idea of what ‘normal’ looks like in the first place.”5

Further, Van Peebles deceived the studio executives by agreeing to but never actually shooting Watermelon Man’s original ending. Rather than positioning the Black experience as a horrible nightmare, Gerber turns revolutionary and, at film’s end, trains with makeshift weapons alongside a group of other Black men. The implication is that he and the brothers will rise up against the U.S.’s racist system if need be to make sure that Blacks’ struggles for civil rights are fully realized. Thus, as Gates summarizes, “Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man — the result of creative brilliance and sheer force of will — expresses a Black-oriented perspective in spite of industrial factors working to actively suppress any manifestation of radical politics.”6

Before landing the job as director on Cotton Comes to Harlem, Ossie Davis had established himself as an actor, writer, and activist. In particular, he had starred in a number of Broadway plays, including The Wisteria Trees (1950), Remains to be Seen (1951), No Time for Sergeants (1956), and Purlie Victorious (1961). Davis also appeared in films such as The Cardinal (1963) and The Hill (1965), and on the TV series Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-63) and The Defenders (1961-65).

Despite his impressive résumé and a strong desire to break into filmmaking, Davis was not initially selected to direct the highly anticipated Cotton Comes to Harlem. The film was a screen adaptation of Chester Himes’ Harlem Detectives series, novels the author had hesitantly written while living in France, where he had moved after his previous works, Lonely Crusade and Cast the First Stone, performed poorly in the United States.7 Writing in the tradition of hard-boiled novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Himes conceived of fantastic tales about two black detectives working to solve crimes on the tough Harlem streets. French (and subsequently African-American) audiences perceived his outlandish vision of Harlem and its residents as authentic representations of the U.S., making the novels international successes. The series captured the attention of Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., who purchased the screen rights to the detective novels with the intention of adapting them into a motion-picture franchise.8

Goldwyn Jr.’s purchase of the rights to Himes’ Harlem Detectives novels initially concerned avid fans of the books, who were “alarmed that the Hollywood moguls — fearful of raps from black integrationists — would bleach out all their hilarious ‘local color,’ make everybody talk General American and remove all the special flavor that gave them their special distinction.”9 Cognizant of such concerns, Goldwyn turned to Davis, who had initially been cast as one of the film’s lead detectives, to rewrite White screenwriter Arnold Pearl’s draft of Cotton’s script.10 Davis provided such a strong revision that Goldwyn Jr. hired him to direct the film. His vision, style, and penchant for centering Blackness are apparent from the onset of the film.

Cotton opens by taking viewers on a tour of Harlem as it follows the Rev. Deke O’Malley’s (Calvin Lockhart) limousine to the site of a fundraiser that he is holding as a part of his Back to Africa crusade. Convinced that his campaign is nothing more than an attempt to swindle Harlem residents out of their money, police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) attend to keep watchful eyes on O’Malley. All is well until armed gunmen interrupt the festivities, stealing the $87,000 in passages that O’Malley has collected and fleeing in a getaway truck. The remainder of the film chronicles Coffin Ed and Grave Digger as they work to bring the culprits to justice and, more importantly, retrieve the stolen money so that they may return it to their Harlem brothers and sisters.

Although Cotton follows a standard detective storyline, Davis delivered a fresh take on the longstanding genre.11 Most notably, the film features two Black detectives working in a predominantly Black urban locale. Before Cotton, Hollywood films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946) centered on lone White detectives like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe working to solve crimes in cities seemingly devoid of people of color. In directing a film that centers two cool, confident, hard-nosed Black police detectives who remain loyal to the Harlem community, Davis expanded traditional conceptions of the detective genre.12

Further, Davis also took direct aim at the longstanding stereotypes that circumscribed Black life, culture, and identity, making Whites’ perpetuation of such distorted mythologies absurd in the process. Particularly, he satirizes the racist notions that Blacks love fried chicken and watermelon during two key moments in Cotton Comes to Harlem. First, at the end of the sequence in which Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones pursue the thieves who stole the Back to Africa passages, the police detectives crash their car into a watermelon cart. Second, when a crowd of O’Malley supporters gather outside the jail to protest his arrest, they disperse after Coffin Ed and Gravedigger throw live chickens into the crowd. Clearly, the implications in both scenes are that in even the most serious moments Blacks’ genetic predispositions for watermelon and fried chicken will soothe their souls. By taking aim the stereotypes in such key moments, Davis positions them as ridiculous constructions conceived in the White imagination.

We are currently witnessing a groundswell of Black films made by Black directors. For instance, Ava DuVernay has established herself as one of Hollywood’s most notable filmmakers with movies like Selma (2014) and the Netflix documentary 13th (2016). Additionally, in 2017 Jordan Peele burst onto the cinematic landscape with his Black-themed horror film Get Out and further showcased his ability to center Blackness in the horror genre with his 2019 follow-up, Us.

As we continue to enjoy those directors’ films, it is important to remember that they are the descendants of Van Peebles and Davis. Fifty years ago, they worked within the Hollywood studio system to advance representative examinations of Blackness and critiques of U.S. racism. Consequently, Watermelon Man and Cotton Comes to Harlem remain milestones that helped galvanize Black filmmaking in Hollywood and illustrate that on cinema screens representations of Black life, culture, and identity matter.


1 KPIX Eyewitness News, “Interview with Melvin Van Peebles.”
2 Qtd., in Racquel Gates, “Subverting Hollywood from the Inside Out: Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man,” Film Quarterly 58 no. 1 (2014): 14.
3 Ibid., 9.
4 Martinez, Gerald, Diana Martinez, and Andres Chavez, What It Is…What It Was!: The Black Film Explosion of the ‘70s in Words and Pictures (New York: Hyperion, 1998), 36.
5 Racquel Gates, “Subverting Hollywood from the Inside Out,” 15.
6 Ibid., 20.
7 Rudolph Chelminski, “Cotton Cashes In: All Black Comedy Is Box-Office Bonanza,” Life, Aug. 28, 1970, 61.
8 Ibid., 61.
9 Ronald Gold, “Director Dared Use Race Humor: Soul as Lure for Cotton’s B.O.,” Variety, Sept. 30, 1970, 62.
10 Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together (New York: William Morrow, 1998), 335-336.
11 Novotny Lawrence, Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre (New York: Routledge, 2008).
12 Ibid., 31 & 33.