Do you remember the famous skit on Saturday Night Live back in the 1980’s where Eddie Murphy had himself made up as a white man to see what his life would be like? The five minute film was a hysterical look at the supposed divide of the races (remember the scene on the passenger bus? When the two African Americans exit the bus, the remaining white passengers throw a party) and may have gotten its original inspiration from the 1970 comedy Watermelon Man.
Watermelon Man, directed by Melvin Van Peebles and written by Herman (Summer of 42) Raucher, has an audaciously funny set up. Character actor Godfrey Cambridge stars as Jeff Gerber, an insurance salesman who lives a middle class life, is seemingly happily married and has two small children. Jeff also happens to be white even though Cambridge the actor is black. The effect is achieved much like in Murphy’s skit by having Cambridge perform in white face. The effect is not as convincing as Murphy’s but it’s a passable effect.
Jeff is a health addict. He eats well. He wakes up each morning and does exercises. He leaves for work and races his bus to a distant bus stop – and wins every morning (in a cute side bit, the passengers on the bus keep rooting the driver on to beat Jeff). Jeff also happens to be a bigot. No he isn’t an angry or mean bigot but he is a bigot nonetheless.
One morning Jeff wakes up and, to his horror, has turned black. He is convinced he has spent too much time under the sun lamp and that his skin will return to its natural color rather quickly. When it doesn’t he bathes in gallons and gallons of milk – to no avail.
Naturally when his wife (Estelle Parsons) first sees her husband’s new color, she screams convinced there is a burglar in the house even though said burglar is wearing pajamas and knows her name.
This is an inspired and clever way to open Watermelon Man and the film promises to cover unexpected territory in hilarious ways. Sadly, the film falls short. It chickens out at the very moments when it should have turned up the level of satire. Imagine what Eddie Murphy would have done with this script.
Having been made in 1970 I wonder if the film was given limits as to how far it could go. If that’s the case the studio didn’t let them go far at all. Gerber’s two kids don’t act in the least bit surprised or upset that daddy is considerably darker than yesterday. In fact, the children almost become non-entities after the change occurs. How about a scene where one of them takes their “new” daddy to school for show and tell? How about a nosy neighbor who happens to work for the media creating a sensational story out of what has happened? How about one single scene where Gerber goes to an African American establishment but is hopelessly out of place because, deep down, he is still white?
Unfortunately the most daring the filmmakers get is when Gerber goes back to work and finds that one of the sexy secretaries finds him even more attractive because of his darker skin color. Why didn’t the movie take more risks like that? Instead we get an awkward scene where Jeff is accused of stealing because he is the only African American in a restaurant where something is missing. There is no need to hit the audience over the head with such statements in a comedy like this one.
A word about Godfrey Cambridge. Cambridge was a robust actor who was equally talented in comedies as he was in dramas. He is long forgotten because, sadly, he died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1976 at the age of 43. It’s always impossible to theorize what an actor’s career may have been like had he lived (though I would say most people agree that James Dean’s career would have been very interesting) but I think Cambridge would have been a solid character actor for many years to come. Here he handles the character of Jeff Gerber beautifully and almost makes the film worth seeing. His exasperation over what has happened to him is frequently hilarious and screenwriter Raucher feeds him some good lines to perfectly describe the ridiculousness of his situation. He is a pleasure to watch.
In the end Watermelon Man doesn’t quite work despite the strong lead performance by Cambridge. It’s an amusing time capsule of a movie but it definitely belongs back in 1970 when it was made. I have never been a fan of movie remakes but always believed that if Hollywood has to do them then why not remake films that didn’t quite make it and could be markedly improved.
If any film cries out for a modern day remake, that movie is Watermelon Man.