|Alma mater||Temple University (BA)|
Rutgers University (MFA)
Cheryl Dunye (born May 13, 1966) is a Liberian-American film director, producer, screenwriter, editor and actress. Dunye's work often concerns themes of race, sexuality, and gender, particularly issues relating to black lesbians.
She has taught at the University of California, Los Angeles, UC Santa Cruz, Pitzer College, Claremont Graduate University, Pomona College, California Institute of the Arts, The New School of Social Research, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and San Francisco State University.
Dunye began her career with six short films which have been collected on DVD as The Early Works of Cheryl Dunye. Most of these videos featured the use of mixed media, a blurring of fact and fiction and explored issues relating to the director's experience as a black lesbian filmmaker. These films are early examples of "Dunyementaries," a blend of narrative and documentary techniques that Dunye describes as "a mix of film, video, friends, and a lot of heart." These works, spanning from 1990-1994, explore themes of race, sexuality, family, relationships, whiteness, and the intricacies of white and black lesbian dating culture. Created before Dunye's widespread success, The Watermelon Woman, Dunye's early works were produced with a low budget and often starred Dunye herself as lead actress.
"(Experimental documentary, 1990) The story of a black lesbian's relationship with a white, upper middle class high school girl."
This experimental documentary follows Dunye's narration of her friendship with a high school classmate, Janine Sorelli. Dunye describes her crush on Janine that spanned from 9th to 12th grade. Dunye explains that Janine's wealthy middle class lifestyle made Dunye feel out of place and uncomfortable with her own identity. Their relationship ended after their senior year of high school when, after Dunye came out to Janine as gay, Janine's mother offered to pay for a doctor to "talk to somebody about [her] problems." Later in life, Dunye called Janine to catch up, but ended the conversation after Janine criticized some of their old high school classmates for having children despite being unmarried.
Dunye describes her experience working on Janine as an external expression of her personal struggles. Dunye says, "The issues I raise in Janine aren't easy ones, and I struggle with them daily. Rather than internalizing them, I put them in my videos." As Dunye says when discussing Janine, she finds it important to represent herself in her work "physically and autobiographically," and states that her work has two goals: to educate audiences unfamiliar with black lesbians and their communities and to empower and entertain other black lesbians through representation in her films.
"(Experimental narrative, 1991) A self-reflexive look at the sexuality of a young black lesbian."
"(Experimental documentary, 1992)."
This 3 minute experimental documentary features Dunye's voice in conversation with an offscreen character, played over photography and found footage. Dunye's narration describes the different meanings of the term vanilla sex which, to white lesbians, meant sex without toys while, to black lesbians, meant sex with white women. Dunye uses the opportunity to explore and discuss the different meanings of such a term in two different contexts between the white and black lesbian communities.
"(Video montage, 1993) Dunye's relationship with her brother is examined in this mixture of appropriated film footage, super 8mm home movies & Dunye's special brand of humor."
"(Experimental narrative, 1993) Sparks fly as racial, sexual and social politics intermingle at a lesbian potluck."
"(Narrative, 1994) Cheryl, playing herself, humorously experiences the mysteries of lesbian dating in the 90s."
Greetings From Africa (1994) is a narrative short film featuring Dunye as Cheryl, a young adult black lesbian working to navigate the complicated world of lesbian dating in the 90s. The film opens with Cheryl narrating in front of a camera about her efforts to get back into the dating scene while attempting to avoid the common pitfall of lesbian serial monogamy. After this opening, Cheryl meets L, a white woman, at a party. L and Cheryl hit it off, and soon meet for a date. Before their date, Cheryl and a friend discuss L, mentioning that Cheryl's friend knew someone had recently seen L at the African American studies department office at a nearby school. Later, after Cheryl has not heard from L for a few days, she attends a party hoping to see L there. Cheryl strikes up a conversation with another black queer woman at the party. Cheryl is surprised to find the woman is not L's old roommate, as L had told Cheryl, but rather her girlfriend. The film concludes with Cheryl reading a greeting card from L with the tagline, "Greetings from Africa." The postcard reads that L has joined the Peace Corps and was currently living and working on the Ivory Coast in Africa.
This film explores themes of black fetishization as L is depicted to have had multiple relationships with black women, also implied by her presence at the African American Studies Department and her final postcard labelled, "Greetings From Africa."
Her feature debut was The Watermelon Woman (1996), a film which explored the history of black women and lesbians in film and "[it] has earned a place in cinematic history as the first feature-length narrative film written and directed by out black lesbian about black lesbians." In 1993 Dunye was doing research for a class on black film history, by looking for information on black actresses in early films. Many times the credits for these women were left out of the film. Frustrated by a lack in the archives, Dunye created a fictional character, Fae Richards, and constructed an archive for that character. Thus, Dunye utilized fiction and the arts to address gaps she noted in official knowledge records. Dunye decided that she was going to use her work to create a story for black women in early films. The film's title is a play on the Melvin Van Peebles's film The Watermelon Man (1970). Dunye then used the creative archival material to curate events to raise funds and show progress to donors.
In the film, the protagonist Cheryl, played by the director, is an aspiring black lesbian filmmaker attempting to bring about the history of black lesbians in cinematic history while attempting to produce her own work because "our stories have never been told." Cheryl the protagonist becomes fascinated by an actress she finds in a movie called Plantation Memories and decides she wants to learn everything there is to know about the actress listed only as "Watermelon Woman" in the credits of the film. The story explores the difficulty in navigating archival sources that either excludes or ignores black queer women working in Hollywood, particularly that of actress Fae Richards whose character bore the name that provides the title for the film.
Dunye's second feature is the HBO produced television movie Stranger Inside based on the experiences of African-American lesbians in prison. The film had a budget of $2 million and was released in theaters as well as on their network.
The film deals with a young woman and juvenile offender named Treasure (Yolanda Ross), who seeks to build a relationship with her estranged mother by getting transferred to the same prison facility once she becomes an adult.
Dunye became interested in exploring motherhood within imprisonment in Stranger Inside by the birth of her daughter and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Additionally, Dunye was interested in the topic of incarcerated women through Angela Davis's work and the Critical Resistance's Creating Change conference at University of California, Berkeley. In a 2004 issue of Feminist Studies, Dunye discussed some of her inspiration and purpose for the film, particularly how these women make prison a home. "In approaching this piece," Dunye says, "I was interested in how connected a lot of these women are to the outside world and how they find that balance to being an inmate, being a mother, being a member of a family or a clan, or a group that got them in--one that they support or have to support. It puts these women in many different spaces at the same time. But one space that they have to call home is this institution: the prison." Dunye did extensive research into women's prisons and extended this research process to the cast and crew during preproduction, like visiting actual women's prisons. Dunye conducted a screenwriting workshop modeled after Rhodessa Jones's Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women during her research. The workshop consisted of Dunye working with 12 incarcerated women from the Shakopee Correctional Facility in Minnesota; this partnership was commissioned through the Walker Art Center during Dunye's time as the center's Artist in Residence. Dunye looked to understand the interpersonal relationships in prison and their use as a means of survival. The collaborative project of the script was then performed in live readings by the twelve workshop participants and presented at the prison. By the time of the release of the film, seven of these women were released and were able to attend a screening at the Walker Center. Those that had not yet completed their sentences were able to view the film at the Shakopee Women's Facility as the film was screened there as well. A live reading performed by professional actors was recorded by the Walker Centre and was showcased at festivals and contributed to the successful funding and production of the film.
Dunye's short film Black Is Blue (2014) screened at over 35 festivals and after great traction and funding from the Tribeca Film Institute, is in the works of becoming a feature-length film. The film will has been re-written and expanded upon by both Dunye and Christina Anderson and will be produced by the San Francisco production company 13th Gen.Black is Blue, reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard, is described to be a "Trans-Erotic-Sci-Fi-Thriller" and will take place in a futuristic Oakland.
Taking a turn from self-written lesbian-focused films, she directed My Baby's Daddy starring Eddie Griffin, Michael Imperioli, and Anthony Anderson in 2004, although a character in the film turns out to be lesbian.
She directed The Owls, co-written with novelist Sarah Schulman, which made its debut at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is about a group of "Older, Wiser Lesbians" (an acronym of which provides the title) who accidentally kill a younger woman and try to cover it up. The cast includes Guinevere Turner and V.S. Brodie, who had appeared together in the 1994 lesbian-themed film Go Fish and The Watermelon Woman, as well as Dunye, Lisa Gornick, Skyler Cooper, and Deak Evgenikos.
As of 2010, Dunye is working on a film called Adventures in the 419, also co-written with Schulman, which was selected as one of the works-in-progress films in the Tribeca All Access program during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. The film is set in Amsterdam and is about 419 scams among the immigrant community.
Dunye cites numerous influences that have contributed to her work including that of Chantal Akerman, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Godard but notes that Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary (1967) and Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) are some of the "most powerful" influences on her.
Her first video, Wild Thing, was an experimental adaptation of the live reading by the black lesbian author and poet Sapphire. Some of the other literary figures that Dunye recalls include Harriet Jacobs,Toni Morrison,Audre Lorde and Fannie Hurst. Notably she has remarked that her work often brings to mind, American experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer and that she "[owes] Michelle Pakerson a lot." For Stranger Inside, Dunye has said that both the adaptations and the novel Imitation of Life played a major part in the mood of the film.
"Dunye has described her early films and videos as 'dunyementaries', works in which she integrates 'documentary and fiction,'" but this style is present in most of her following work as well. In The Watermelon Woman, personal archival materials are the essential pieces that form the history that the protagonist is searching to discover. Photographs, both authentic images from the 1930s and 1940s and recreations made by the director of photography Zoë Leonard, were used in the film and play an important part in the construction of the history that the protagonist seeks.
In Stranger Inside, Dunye mixes documentary and fiction, as some of the background actors were actual former inmates. The film was first conceived as a documentary feature, and it employs documentary techniques, but Dunye felt that a narrative approach would better suit the subject matter.