This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.
The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.
The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.
The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.
On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.
Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.
Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon
Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon
Run Time: 11 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).