While most of the soundtrack is made up of Mickey Baker’s jazz guitar, van Peebles intervenes with discordant, jarring notes that often punctuate what would otherwise be a relatively standard non-diegetic soundtrack. While, in visual terms, quick cuts and sudden close-ups were used previously in the sequence in which Turner explores Paris, these jarring cuts are even more pronounced half-way through his trip with Miriam to the beach. During this sequence, sudden cuts become freeze-frames while guitar riffs override the soundtrack. The film freezes on close-ups of Miriam’s thighs or calves as she stretches out in the car, marking the sexual tension of the scene. During the sequence, the narrative cuts back and forth between the sexualized images of Miriam’s body and her smiling face, or as she explains something to Turner, with shots of the landscape they pass through as well.

A close up of Miriam’s thighs as discordant guitar chords suddenly cut through the previously upbeat jazz underscoring. The film begins to cut back and forth between suggestive shots of Miriam, and her talking, engaged in conversation with Turner.
Each time the film cuts to her thighs or ankles, the discordant guitar once again cuts through the soundtrack. Interspersed throughout are shots of countryside, until they reach the ocean.

When landscape or Miriam’s face appears, the soundtrack provides jazzy, upbeat underscoring, accentuating their excitement at their impromptu beachside trip. While the jarring cuts and chords have a relatively straightforward narrative purpose, suggesting that this is a romantic affair and not merely a trip with a new friend, van Peebles pushes this further when they consummate their budding relationship. Beyond Story of a Three Day Pass, this style also marks out an aesthetic strategy that van Peebles will apply across all three films discussed in this article. While each iteration suits the individual film, it illustrates the director’s early interest in manipulating the commercial practices of continuity editing in order to introduce a critical race politics.

The pattern of radical interjection develops in the direction of a critical race politics in Story of a Three Day Pass during the first romantic encounter between the couple. While they are having sex in their hotel room, the film suddenly begins to cut between their embrace and far-removed scenes, first the seeming fantasies of each, and then actual events in the world accompanied again by the discordant guitar. As the couple lay down together on the bed, the camera first zooms into Turner’s head and the film cuts to a fantasy sequence where Turner is a member of the French aristocracy, complete with fancy dress and a countryside manor, which leads into a romantic encounter with Miriam. Next, the camera zooms into Miriam’s head, and the following fantasy sequence depicts her being captured by an African tribe, which leads to Turner showing up to initiate a romantic encounter.

Miriam being captured in her sexual fantasy. Turner appears in Miriam’s fantasy.

Turner’s fantasy is accompanied by classical strings, whereas Miriam’s is accompanied by a tribal drumbeat, but as the film returns to their real lovemaking, the film’s previous underscoring resumes. This time, however, sudden cuts interject less fantastical images, as the jarring guitar returns from the previous scene. Whereas the fantasy worlds were coherent, the interjection of images from the historical world are introduced as a disruption. These images include found footage from World War II, meat being chopped, police brutality, dead bodies being carried on a plank, military maneuvers with helicopters and troops, and a reenacted race-protest.

Meat being chopped, immediately after Turner and Miriam begin their lovemaking, which foreshadows the brutality against actual human bodies that follows. A man wearing a military uniform kicking a civilian onto the ground, intercut with Turner and Miriam’s lovemaking.
A civilian being beaten with a baton, intercut with Turner and Miriam’s lovemaking. A corpse being carried on a stretcher, intercut with Turner and Miriam’s lovemaking.

In the last sequence, with the reenacted race-protest, Turner whistles from a rooftop and the camera tilts and pans to show him beckoning to Miriam, as she comes forward to kiss him, suggesting both acknowledge that their tryst will upset certain populations (and that, perhaps, they don’t really care). While their diegetic sex is uninterrupted and seemingly pleasurable for both, the disjunctive editing riddles their lovemaking with the history of colonialism and its aftereffects. This editing suggests, like Turner’s ‘other’ self, that his present relationship is too good to be true.

While together, Miriam and Turner’s relationship seems as if it might end along the happy lines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with a relationship freed from, or at least relatively unencumbered by, social norms, but the film’s conclusion returns to the critical race politics informed by van Peebles’s formal interventions – through the splitting of the self through the use of two frames, the discordant guitar riffs, and his intercutting history into their passionate romance. After Turner’s fellow soldiers see Miriam and Turner together at the beach, Turner bemoans, “I guess I just lost my promotion.” Miriam, seeming not to understand the seriousness of racial politics in the United States, remains upbeat, suggesting that the other soldiers won’t report anything to his captain. Miriam seems completely smitten with Turner, and in a passionate monologue tells him that she’s decided she’s “not going to be ‘sick’ anymore,” unless with him – sickness being her excuse for leaving work in order to go to the beach. Eventually she wins him over and he agrees, “You’re right, they probably won’t say anything.” This upbeat note is cut short by Turner’s psyche, who glibly decries, “I’m not so sure!” The film instantly cuts to Turner’s captain demoting him and restricting him to base.

This conclusion cements the African American soldier’s role in U.S. Empire in line with the Black Panthers’ decree: African Americans are situated as colonial troops, part of the U.S. military arm but biopolitically separate from its sovereign citizens. At the same time, van Peebles takes his conclusion one step further. Through a stroke of luck, a contingent of African American women show up to tour the military base and lodge a plea with the captain, so Turner gets his leave reinstated. As soon as one of the women hands him his papers, he immediately makes a dash for the base telephone and calls Miriam’s workplace, which informs him that Miriam is “not here… she’s sick.” With this devastating ending, the film suggests that the viewer should have known all along, already clued in by all of van Peebles’s hints in the form of disjunctive sound design and editing. Turner’s psyche steps in one last time to say, “Hey baby, I could’ve told you.” He replies, “Fuck you,” and tosses himself on his bunk. With this conclusion, van Peebles maintains a radical politics rather than return to American exceptionalism through a liberal belief that everything would work out in the end. Here, the “Glory of Love,” to cite Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s ending theme, is not enough to end racial prejudice.

Turner’s fellow soldiers, upon seeing him with Miriam – the sequence ends with one of the soldiers saying ominously, “But we’ll tell everyone we saw you." Turner’s expression after meeting his fellow soldiers, and saying, “I guess I just lost my promotion."

Black skin, whiteface:
Watermelon Man
and industry insurgency

After van Peebles’s success with Story of a Three Day Pass, he was contacted by Columbia Pictures who was looking for an African American to direct Watermelon Man.[51] [open endnotes in new window] Columbia Pictures also distributed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and was no doubt looking to capitalize on this earlier film’s success. While Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has provided a foil for my argument in this article, this is not simply a historical comparison on my part, but a dynamic that van Peebles responded to in the early 1970s directly through referencing the earlier film. That is, in Watermelon Man after Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge, who wears whiteface until he becomes black) begins to come to terms with the fact he has woken up black, he calls his wife Althea (Estelle Parsons) and tells her, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” As I mentioned previously, Raucher, the writer of Watermelon Man, and van Peebles wrestled over the film’s relation to the political climate of the civil rights. Van Peebles’s struggle with the screenwriter is emblematic of his response to Columbia’s earlier film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, as its popularity on the national stage represented a large scale acceptance of the U.S. creedal narrative and American exceptionalism. Van Peebles’s response here was to take the job offered, direct a studio film as a token African American for the company, and modify studio practices so that the eventual product was no longer just a “studio film” but an auteur-altered film with a critical message about racial liberalism in the United States.

Whereas Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has innocuous characters, in the beginning of Watermelon Man Gerber is outwardly racist. His peers dislike him, partly because of how overtly racist he is, though the film takes aim at his family and co-workers’ racism as well. The first time viewers witnesses Gerber’s usual morning routine, which will be disrupted by his waking up black, he makes severely racist jokes on three occasions while no one around him shares his laughter. He boxes an imaginary Muhammad Ali during his morning exercise routine, telling the punching bag, “You’re a credit to your race.” He yells at his African American bus driver, “In the good ol’ days, back in the ol’ south, you’d have to drive from back here! Get it? Back of the bus!” He asks the counterman at his usual café, Joe, significantly played by Mantan Moreland, “Was there any rioting in the streets last night?” Then after this politically charged question he says,

“Hey no offense about that looting remark… I know you don’t go for that sort of thing… and of course if you DID, it would be very hard for the police to identify you. I mean an hour later… all you cats look alike!”

Rather than suggest that just a segment of society is racist, as does Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, van Peebles presents the viewer with a caustic racist character who espouses a range of racist sentiments so that the film will directly indict racism in the United States.

Gerber’s wife Althea is his liberal antithesis. When Gerber decries the news of racial unrest on the television in the beginning of the film, Althea responds, “I think white people need to show greater interest and understanding.” Over the course of the film, however, these two positions are reversed as Gerber lives as an African American and Althea is presented not just with television stories but an actual relationship with the now black Gerber. In addition, the change in Gerber is not only skin deep: his previously caustic attitude which draws disdain from those around him becomes tempered and Gerber emerges as an honest, likeable man. That makes it clear that Althea’s choice to leave Gerber is not based on personality, but on the fact that he is now a black man. Watermelon Man punctuates this shift with Althea’s refusal to sleep with the now-black Gerber, a reversal of her previously unrequited affections, so that the film continues van Peebles’s focus on the fear of miscegenation that was seen in Story of a Three-Day Pass. Unlike the challenge to liberal ideologies in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which are eventually overcome in the name of American exceptionalism, van Peebles here suggests that when ultimately confronted with racial integration, such liberal ideologies may not hold up. This key distinction between acceptance of liberalism and its critique illustrate the conflict between scriptwriter Raucher and director van Peebles:  though Raucher’s intended contribution to the civil rights was indeed a critique of white liberalism – one might say that for van Peebles, Raucher simply did not take this critique far or seriously enough.

The studio’s original vision of the film, and Raucher’s, was to have the film end with Gerber waking up one morning white again and relieved. Van Peebles took issue with the suggestion that living as a black man was a nightmare. He told the studio he was going to film two endings, the one they desired and his own. Instead, he only shot his own ending: he recounts,

“I sort of had final cut on Watermelon Man by simply breaking my word and not shooting a disputed scene the two ways we had agreed on, the way they wanted it and the way I wanted it—‘… and then we will [pat-pat] see later, Mel….’”[52]

In his ending, Jeff Gerber leaves his insurance agency that has been exploiting black communities and forms his own that serves these same communities. Gerber also visits an African American bar, where despite a shakedown by a pair of white police officers, he appears more at home in his skin than he has at any other time in the film. The final shot of the film shows Gerber in his new exercise routine – “I’m working out in the evenings now,” he tells Althea – practicing self-defense with brooms and mops in a room full of other black men, a clear nod to the Black Panthers and the necessity for African Americans to protect themselves in the United States. The image I include here depicts the final shot of the film, a freeze frame on Gerber’s face, mid strike, as he practices in the martial arts studio, cementing this argument. He revealed the fact that he only shot his ending late enough in production that the studio had no choice but to go with it, but he received no backlash as the film went on to become another success.

Racquel Gates extrapolates the political significance of various ways in which van Peebles describes his motivations for making Watermelon Man. In her analysis of Watermelon Man, she argues that the film “stands as a testament to van Peebles’s difficult, but ultimately successful, ambition to criticize Hollywood’s and society’s racism ‘from the inside out.’”[53] Gates develops three distinct ways in which van Peebles’s critique comes, using his words, ‘from the inside out’:

    1. “Van Peebles wisely decided to choose his battles with Columbia when it came to casting the film: he insisted that an African American actor play the lead and petitioned for Mantan Moreland to be added in a supporting role, but left the rest of the casting decisions to the studio.
    2. Van Peebles also interjected in ways that the studio likely deemed insignificant at the time, such as composing his own musical score for the film. The experimental jazz/blues/funk compositions, however, added a level of dissonance to many of the images in the film.
    3. And when he anticipated studio objections, Van Peebles simply lied or withheld important information, such as when he told executives that he had shot two endings for the film, but in reality, only filmed one.”[54]

As Gates illustrates, key choices such as these allowed van Peebles to manipulate industry practices, which she argues results in a “hybridized” film, straddling “independent cinema and Hollywood film.”[55] Her argument informs my position that Watermelon Man blurs the lines between first and second cinema, marked by van Peebles’ desire for artistic control and a clear political message that was fostered in France.

Van Peebles imprints his auteur’s stamp on the studio film, Watermelon Man, marking the film out as a hybrid between Solanas and Getino’s first and second cinemas. This hybridization clashes with the ideology of American exceptionalism, cementing the film’s radically different approach when compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. His stamp in Watermelon Man is particularly notable where he interjects his own music and lyricism into the soundtrack, disjunctively interrupting at times a more classical underscoring. These interjections are similar to those in Story of Three Day Pass, albeit without the discordance of the guitar, favoring instead his own musical style. In addition to being an author and a filmmaker, van Peebles is a musician with seven records to his name, and his spoken-word style has been credited as being a foundational influence on modern rap music. Most notably, van Peebles wrote the hit “Love, that’s America,” for Watermelon Man, a song that he later released on the album As Serious as a Heart-Attack, and that song was taken up by Occupy Wall Street protesters as an anthem in 2011.[56] The track is introduced alongside overlaid titles at the critical juncture in which Gerber tells his boss that he refuses to exploit the black community, and it includes lyrics such as, “This ain’t America is it? Oh lord where can I be,” and “In America, folks don’t run through the streets blood streaming from where they’ve been beat.” During the sequence in which this song plays, framed text superimposes freeze-frames, with lines like, “be a credit to your race” and “You get used to the smell… and there’s a lot to be grateful for and…” as if van Peebles is imprinting his own political commentary directly on the images themselves. Whereas Solanas and Getino caution that industry limits the auteur’s politics, Watermelon Man provides an instance where van Peebles weaponized his status as an auteur.

As Gerber begins to think about his job in insurance sales more critically after becoming black, he worries less about profits and more what is right for the black communities he serves. His boss attempts to reorient him towards making profits off of black communities, and van Peebles interjects with his own stylized titles that make the subtext clear.
His second doctor, after his white doctor refers him to a black doctor, tells him, “You’re wrong to go on trying to fool yourself,” and again the title provides the inference, “You’re a negro!” Fed up with the ethics of insurance sales, Gerber finds a job at the dump, where his co-worker tells him that someone on their crew has been working there for 13 years – this title suggests a complacency, which Gerber goes on to reject by starting his own insurance company.

The interventions that Gates highlights, and her notion of a critique from the “inside out” are crucial for two different reasons. One, describing his approach to the Hollywood system as such highlights van Peebles’s unique way of navigating diverse industries while maintaining his critique of American Exceptionalism. Two, the “inside out” gestures towards the potential for a radical politics within the industry itself. If radical black politics during the civil rights movement took quite a different tack than those that followed an American creedal narrative, they nonetheless were internal to and present within the United States. In some ways, this alternative approach comes to fruition through greater African American participation in the film industry, though with varying degrees of critical edge as studios attempt to maintain economic control through the ensuing Blaxploitation films. Van Peebles comes away with another message after making Watermelon Man, however: working within the studios system does not satisfy his desire for control nor offer the opportunity to deliver his own message unencumbered. As a result, he turns away from the studios with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Nonetheless, just as Gates positions Watermelon Man as a hybrid film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song crosses generic boundaries, by oscillating between a radical political message and a desire for entertainment to deliver the film’s politics.