Twenty-five years ago, Cheryl Dunye changed filmmaking as a Black queer writer and director with her debut feature, The Watermelon Woman. The film, shot like a documentary-narrative hybrid, explores the history of the erasure of the intersections of Black and LGBTQ+ stories in Hollywood while also being deeply funny. Dunye’s voice was then and continues to be refreshingly singular Now, she’s nominated for the NAACP Image Award for directing “Strange Case,” a pivotal episode of creator Misha Green's breakout HBO series Lovecraft Country.
In a wide-ranging interview for Inside With The Advocate shortly after the episode aired, Dunye, from her home in the San Francisco Bay area, touched on politics, activism, and the art of film and TV.
A prolific director in both mediums, following the critical acclaim for The Watermelon Woman— it’s now a classic in the lesbian canon — Dunye went on to direct 2001’s Stranger Inside, a crucial look at the effect of the prison-industrial complex that tells the story of a Black lesbian protagonist in the system. She also directed and cowrote 2010's The Owls, which stands for older, wiser lesbians.
On TV, she’s directed episodes of The Fosters, Claws, The Chi, David Makes Man, and Ava Duvernay’s remarkable Queen Sugar.
With the sci-fi/horror/fantasy series Lovecraft Country’s “Strange Case,” Dunye got to dabble in some elements of horror to tell the story of Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), a Black woman in the ’50s who through the use of a potion walks through the world in the skin of a white woman until the elixir wears off and she sheds the visage. The story’s queer element involves Ruby discovering that the white man who gives her the potion, with whom she’s been sleeping, is not a man. He is the skin for Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee), a white woman with powers who at times desires to walk through the world as a man.
“I think with my history of LGBTQ activism, with my work that I do, sort of unapologetic about who I am, our history,” added to her being the perfect director for the episode, she says.
“I've been a professor of cinema, you know, Black, Black, Black, queer, Black, Black, lesbian, Black, like, Black,” she says about her body of work that reflects her identity. “I was able to put all that into what I was going to do with this episode.”
The episode is part of a through-line of Dunye’s work shining a light on people whose narratives have traditionally been ignored or quashed in Hollywood.
“It’s storytelling that people just didn't pay attention to, right? I was already telling these stories. What’s happening with Lovecraft what'’s happened with my work in this moment is like, You’re just catching up? I’ve already been there,” Dunye says. “It’s not like, Oh, you were groundbreaking. You’re ahead of your time, whatever. People always keep saying this to me about my work. It’s like, I’m living my time.”
Regarding the heart of the episode, she says, “I think really what the episode for me was about, and probably what Misha drew on, was about being uninterrupted.”
“This is an episode where Ruby gets to be uninterrupted. Access to that or taking charge to feel like your life is interrupted. A lot of the show was about the fantasy of being uninterrupted and how that could happen, or the reality of it because it’s a reality within the narrative,” Dunye says. “What if you could have magic on your side to make things happen?”
While the winners of the NAACP Image Awards will be announced March 27 and Lovecraft Country is nominated for a Golden Globe Award, Dunye continues to create important art. She’s working on a project in which she’ll explore the subject of The Watermelon Woman, Faye Richards, at another point in Faye’s career and life. Additionally, she’s readapted her script for Adventures in the 419 (based on the story of Nigerian con men) to be set in the Bay Area. If that weren’t enough, she also recently shot the pilot for the series Delilah for OWN and she’s developing her short Black Is Blue into a feature that will be “set in the not too distant future [about] a black trans man and black trans woman and an android.”
Watch the interview with Dunye above. And watch other episodes of Inside With The Advocate, which features an array of virtual stories with LGBTQ+ artists, trailblazers, and allies including Rosie O'Donnell, Emily Hampshire, Harvey Guillén, Ross Mathews, Kalen Allen, Sherry Cola, Fortune Feimster, Brandy Norwood, Bruce Richman, Tonatiuh, Josh Thomas, Ser Anzoategui, the Indigo Girls, Sara Benincasa, Dustin Lance Black, Alphonso David, Jonica "Jojo" Gibbs, Lena Hall, Mary Lambert, Elijah Mack, Rahne Jones, Thomas Beattie, and Quintessa Swindell and Brianna Hildebrand, Andy Bell, Charlie Carver, and Kat Cunning.