Eating the (M)Other: Cheryl Dunye's Feature Films and Black Matrilineage

Frann Michel

[1] The historical silencing and erasure of African-American women have made exploring their experiences a central project for scholars and artists. The search for what Alice Walker has famously called "our mothers' gardens" (243), the search for foremothers, has been vexed for black women by the legacies of slavery and racism. Obstacles to literacy, restrictive genre conventions, and lack of access to means of production and distribution have hindered the expression of black women's creativity and the preservation of their experiences. Responding in part to this challenging history, African-American women artists have often turned to "rememory" of the past—an ongoing and collective process of memory that materializes the past in the present (Morrison 36), and have often challenged generic formal and ideological conventions. For the lesbian daughter, locating a maternal heritage is all the more vexed, because that heritage is all the more obscured. Writer-director Cheryl Dunye has taken up this quest in the two feature-length films she has written and directed: The Watermelon Woman (1996) and Stranger Inside (2001). In both, the search for the (fore) mother—for the precursor as black lesbian cinema artist or for the embodied mother who bore her, respectively—drives the protagonist.

[2] Watermelon Woman's overt reworkings of the conventions of the cinematic gaze and the stereotypes of lesbian identity help illuminate developments in the later film. In literalizing the trope of reconstructing collective history as finding intimate family connection—finding the foremother as finding the biological mother—Stranger Inside more fully explores the ways that putatively public structures, particularly the prison system, shape the ostensibly private relations of family as well as the communicative structures of narrative cinema. Grounding its analysis in negotiations of bodily and racial boundaries, Dunye's second film locates an African-American subjectivity within the matrix of a lesbian heritage.

[3] In this essay, I explore the ways that The Watermelon Woman reclaims elements of cinematic language, in order to more fully consider how this language is put to use in Stranger Inside. The continuities between the two films justify this approach, since the accomplishments of the earlier film provide some of the ground on which the later work builds. Despite structural and tonal differences, The Watermelon Woman and Stranger Inside share significant thematic and theoretical concerns: African-American women's history, the diversity of lesbian communities, the search for mother figures, and the nature of representation. Both films feature a cross-generational search for a black woman, a mother figure. Both include a same-generation encounter with a white woman, though the physical scene of that encounter is sexual in The Watermelon Woman and chiefly violent in Stranger Inside. Each film resolves its narrative quest not so much by finding the mother, as by inventing and internalizing her. Both films provide potentially unexpected closures, addressing the decentered site of women's emotional and erotic bonds with each other, and claiming those intersections as locations of agency.

[4] The relation between biological and chosen family is in different ways particularly salient both for African Americans and for queers. Both have had vexed relations to biological kin and legal definitions of family, and both have created alternative notions of family. Under slavery, of course, most Africans and African Americans in the US had no legal rights to self-ownership, much less to marriage or custody of their children, and involuntary family separations were common. Economic pressures and disproportionately high rates of incarceration have meant continued pressure on black kin networks, and continued development of alternative families, including both the general recognition of other black women and men as sisters and brothers, and the more intimate relations of "play" family membership (also visible in the prison families of Stranger Inside)—naming non-biological connections with kin terms. Somewhat differently, gay people have often faced rejection by their families of origin, and in most of the United States still face obstacles to legal marriage, child custody, and adoption. But although some have critiqued the notion of family as repressively heterosexist, others have argued for inclusion of gay people within an expanded notion of family, and being "in the family" has also become a colloquialism for being gay (as well as the title of a magazine directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender families). I don't mean to conflate the different meanings and histories of family for African Americans and for queers, but to suggest that Dunye—herself an African-American lesbian—creates films that interrogate this complex nexus of race and sexuality.

[5] The Watermelon Woman and Stranger Inside recognize the importance of both chosen and biological family, as well as the context that family and community provide for the development of individual subjectivity and agency. Both narratives include the protagonists' biological mothers as well as elective families. In The Watermelon Woman, the protagonist's biological mother is part of the network of relations and sources of information used in the quest for the cinematic foremother, herself a fictional character who provides dramatic unity to the writer-director's story of creative agency—an agency that develops, in turn, through the discovery of precursors, the recovery and recreation of history. Stranger Inside attends more to the question of biological kinship; specifically, it attends to the desire for relation to the mother who has borne the child inside her body. In Stranger Inside, the protagonist's biological mother is the object of the narrative's central quest, a quest variously enabled, critiqued, and resisted by assorted gang sisters and play family members. The later film thus focuses more on the questions of the relation of family to thematics of blood and bodily boundaries.

Harriett Jacobs[6] Visually and narratively, however, bodily boundaries are crossed in Stranger Inside most prominently through images of food and eating. As an image of connection and transcendence of boundaries of the individual body, food imagery recalls the earliest stages of life and the first mother-child bond, as well as suggesting the constructions of self through the incorporation of the other. Insofar as food and eating imagery evokes the body's interiority and thus, implicitly, the interiority of the subject, the film registers the connections between incarceration and subjectivity. Yet images of food and eating also connect the film to the slave narrative that is its precursor. As I discuss more fully below, Dunye has cited as an influence on Stranger Inside Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), a work that similarly calls attention to the role of food as a vehicle of power and control. But just as the biological mother turns out to be absent from Dunye's second film, so, too, Jacobs' text as narrative forerunner is not explicitly present.

[7] The quest for the absent black lesbian mother/figure contributes to the structuring of black matrilineage in Dunye's films. Both Stranger Inside and The Watermelon Woman seek and ultimately construct the mother/figure through multiracial networks of kin and community. Although The Watermelon Woman emphasizes more explicitly the black lesbian as the subject of the gaze, both Stranger Inside and The Watermelon Woman challenge conventional relations of looking, revising the family romance on which the psychoanalytic account of the gaze is based.

[8] The idea of the "male gaze" is of course described in Laura Mulvey's germinal analysis of Hollywood film, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," in which she delineates the pattern whereby classic movies presume a male spectator and position women as the objects of the gaze of the spectator and male protagonist. The European psychoanalytic accounts on which Mulvey draws presume a nuclear, two-parent, male-headed family, in which the child is indicatively male, and the subject of the gaze in Mulvey's account is similarly not only gendered (male) but also raced (white) and sexed (hetero). Mulvey herself acknowledges some of the limitations of the analysis she provides ("Afterthoughts" 12-15). But as Linda Williams has noted,

Although the hegemony of a masculinebourgeoiswhiteEurocentric classical gaze was eventually challenged by a range of diverse positionalities not only of gender but also of class, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, those challenges did not themselves add up to a newly coherent formulation of spectatorial relations. Rather, they tended to add up to an interesting list of exceptions to a dominant mainstream whose typicality went by largely unchallenged. (Williams 2-3)

I suggest that considering the implications of other family structures and the larger social forces that shape those families can gives us a more cohesive new formulation of spectatorial relations.

[9] In foregrounding the role of the black lesbian as filmmaker, spectator, and desiring subject, The Watermelon Woman self-consciously supplants the pattern of the white heterosexual male gaze. It positions its protagonist not only in relation to family in the person of a mother (played by Irene Dunye, the filmmaker's mother), but also in relation to a multiracial queer community, an economic system (Hollywood cinema, video stores, nightclubs), and a structure of lesbian desire that potentially crosses racialized boundaries. Stranger Inside builds on this pattern, highlighting the extent to which these structures of desire draw on maternal relations, and more fully positioning mothering and maternal relations within a prison-industrial economy that is itself a descendant of the history of slavery.

[10] The comic Watermelon Woman in part offers a faux documentary about the filmmaker's search for the (fictional) black actress of the 1930s named in the title. Operating on multiple diegetic levels, the film also includes the faux documentary result of that search, as well as the kinds of scenes conventional in a fiction film, in which the camera's presence is denied. In its mix of forms and genres, The Watermelon Woman emphasizes the material history of Hollywood cinema—the impact of race, class, gender, and sexuality on the stories that have been told and the stories that need to be invented. It focuses on both the body of the film maker and the scene of production, while acknowledging its own fictional status: the protagonist is played by Dunye, and also named "Cheryl." Cheryl works in a video store and has a video business with her friend Tamara, but uses the equipment for her project which, she says, "has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told."

[11] Cheryl is making a living off of videos that misrepresent or exclude her; but she also exploits the resources of that living to counter those misrepresentations. In the video store, she orders early Hollywood films with black actresses, and screens some of these with commentary that contextualizes and critiques the images. These commentaries are filmed with the equipment from the video business she shares with Tamara, and that business, in turn, opens The Watermelon Woman with a point of view shot through the camera as Cheryl videotapes a black-Jewish wedding, an event that offers a reminder both of the marriage institution that excludes lesbians and of the interracial dimensions of the American family. As the wedding's white male still photographer tries to appropriate the arrangement of the wedding party that Cheryl has orchestrated, the viewer is further reminded of the continuing history of white male control of the gaze (or attempts at controlling the gaze).

[12] Watermelon Woman plays throughout with the conventions of cinema, not only challenging the hegemony of the male gaze but also calling the audience's attention to the status of the movie as an artifact through old-fashioned scene transitions like wipes, iris shots, and intertitles. It further indexes cinema history in clips from fabricated but generically faithful films. The film critiques that cinema history when Cheryl mockingly lipsyncs the scene from the (fictional) movie Plantation Memories in which a "beautiful black mammy" reassures a white belle that "massa's comin' back" from the Civil War. Both the white-dominated sentimental romance of the antebellum south and the racist casting and writing of Hollywood film are also disrupted by Cheryl's observation about the actress billed only as "The Watermelon Woman": "girlfriend's got it going on." The recognition of "something interesting, something serious" in the actress's face prompts Cheryl's project of recovering her story. The point at which the performance exceeds the role makes possible creative intervention, invented narrative; that is, one black woman's creativity helps generate another's.

[13] Following her interviews and archival research, the film shows us Cheryl's discovery of the actress's multiple names and identities as Faith Richardson and Fae Richards: a maid and mammy in Hollywood films, she was a star of black-cast "race" movies, and a popular singer in the mixed-race queer clubs on Philadelphia's south side. The Fae Richards story is interwoven with other episodes from Cheryl's life, so that, for instance, Cheryl's affair with the wealthy white Diana parallels Fae's involvement with the Dorothy Arzneresque director Martha Page. If Cheryl is surprised (and delighted) to discover that Fae is a "sapphic sister," lesbian identity among the film's other figures is more or less taken for granted. The film disrupts stereotypes of fixed lesbian identity through the diverse characters and the discussions among Cheryl, Tamara, and their lovers, friends, dates, and coworkers.

[14] Most critical commentators on The Watermelon Woman have similarly seen it as deconstructing notions of fixed identity (see, e.g., Braidt 186; Sullivan). In addition to the unfixing of lesbian identity through its variety, and the multiple identities of Fae/Faith/the Watermelon Woman, we might also note the further complexity introduced by considering the actress who plays Fae's various incarnations in Dunye's film, or indeed by considering the doubling of Cheryl/Dunye. The external referentiality of much of the film's casting calls attention to the fictionality of the characters' identities: the film includes cameos by writer Sarah Schulman (as director of the Center for Lesbian Information and Technology, or C.L.I.T. archives), manic anti/feminist cultural critic Camille Paglia (as herself), performance artist Brian Freeman (as a collector of "race" film memorabilia), and poet Cheryl Clark (as Fae's lover June). Identifiable as both well-known cultural figures and as the characters they play in this film, each of these performances introduces a double identity. Insofar as a viewer recognizes these figures, the cinematic text of The Watermelon Woman thus confirms both a contemporary multiracial queer cultural community and the artifice of the documentary. Less cinematically self-referential, Stranger Inside shares with the earlier film an interest in structures of kin and community.

[15] In both films, the exploration of black matrilineage reveals also women's cross-racial connections with each other, whether registering desire for or antipathy to the white woman who stands in a place of privilege or power. In The Watermelon Woman, the pairing of black woman and rich white woman is echoed from the mammy and belle, through Fae and director Martha Page, and through Cheryl and Diana. But to what extent these parallels signal similarity and to what extent contrast remains an open question. The Watermelon Woman offers multiple versions of the events it creates and discovers—refusing, for instance, to decide between Cheryl's initial reading of Fae's relationship with Martha Page as a sign of her sapphic sisterhood and of their shared love of movies and women, and June's dismissal of it as only a marker of oppression.

[16] While most critics have emphasized the multiple and conflicting possible subject positions represented in the fictional history constructed by Dunye, Mark Winokur emphasizes that the text represents "a desire for wholeness," highlighting the project of integrating "the filmmaker and her on screen persona, ... the filmmaker and the possibility of making films" (Winokur 243, 235). Other critics have also noted that the story of Cheryl's becoming a filmmaker is one of the structuring arcs of The Watermelon Woman, accomplished through the construction of a fictional foremother. But Winokur's psychoanalytic frame leads him to an account of Cheryl's "failure to find an adequate imago in the 'actual' mother," and the view that Irene Dunye "proves an inadequate ... source of information" (Winokur 244-5, 244). In fact, however, although Irene Dunye does not recognize the name of "The Watermelon Woman," she does recognize the performer, from her photograph, as a singer in Philadelphia's clubs. Later, Irene has helped Cheryl locate her old friend Shirley, who recalls when Fae Richards "used to sing for all us stone butches" (at which point the camera zooms in on her face, indicating the eager attention of a documentarian who has found the story she wants to hear) Thus Cheryl's 'actual' mother is key to discovering the story of her metaphorical mother or fictional foremother, a story ultimately discovered and constituted only through multiple intersecting sources.

[17] At the end of the film, the screen reads, "The Watermelon Woman is fiction. Sometimes you have to make your own history." Surprise endings demand a reconsideration of what has come before, a revisiting of history. In this case, the ending may be surprising for many viewers precisely because the fiction is plausible, based as it is in historical research. African-American performers in early Hollywood cinema really did bear outlandish and degrading names, and really did face limited roles; "race" films really did suffer from limited budgets and distribution constraints. But insofar as the film recounts Cheryl's process of becoming a filmmaker, it shows that she does so through her connections with other women-family, friends, lovers, and coworkers provide links to information for the video project. Moreover, the discovery of Fae in a "mammy" role, the inclusion of the filmmaker's mother as well as her stone butch old friend as crucial sources of information-these details help point to the construction of the precursor as foremother.

[18] In Stranger Inside, of course, the protagonist's quest is for the biological mother rather than the foremother, but in that film, too, the fictional narrative is grounded in material realities and transindividual sources. The story concerns Treasure Lee, a young, incarcerated black woman who gets herself transferred from the juvenile corrections system to the adult prison where she believes she can find her mother. The grandmother who raised Treasure had told her that her daughter, Treasure's mother, had died. But Treasure has longed to believe that her mother, Brownie Lee, is alive in prison. Treasure explains her desire not to avoid prison but to seek it in terms of her passion to find her mother, a woman she's never met but, she says, she's been missing all her life. This desire is of course socially mediated, not only by the intervention of the legal and prison systems that have separated mother and daughter, but also through Treasure's relations with other girls and women: in one of Treasure's dream sequences, we hear a chorus of girls taunting, "You ain't got no momma." Combining the oneiric and the ostensibly objective, Stranger Inside offers both dream and documentary styles and materials. The film thus resists the conventions of women-in-prison movies; instead, Dunye has cited as a precursor text Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), which, as an autobiography long read as a work of fiction, somewhat differently works the boundaries between fictional and factual modes. Constrained by institutional and intimate boundaries that are constructed by the larger society, Dunye's protagonist negotiates a position of subjective agency, traversing bodily boundaries through oral imagery and crossing borders of biological and chosen family, erotic and familial desire. Connecting the history of slavery with the contemporary prison system, Stranger Inside explores multiple meanings of black matrilineage.

[19] Dunye has described her early films and videos as "'dunyementaries,'" works in which she integrates "'documentary and fiction.'" While Stranger Inside has a more linear narrative style than many of her earlier works, it, too, draws on both material realities and transindividual sources. Dunye workshopped the script with women prison inmates, and many of the extras in the film were former inmates, as were some of the participants in the unrehearsed group therapy sessions that punctuate the film. As background for the film, Dunye drew on research into "'places where theoretical issues around women in prison and social justice issues intersect'" (Willis 33). Further, Stranger Inside blends not only documentary material with the performances of actual inmates for scenes of prison rap-sessions, but also documentary style in its use of hand-held shooting.

[20] The "dunyementary" style is just one of the many things that distinguish Stranger Inside from most earlier films about women in prison. Conventionally, women-in-prison films have been exploitation flicks, with gratuitous sex and violence and campy dialogue and acting, though they have also been recognized as amenable to feminist interpretations. Suzana Danuta Walters observes that in the typical plot, the virtuous new fish gets her consciousness raised, and the community of women revolts, often successfully, against the prison hierarchy: "women in these B movies fight back and (often) emerge stronger, tougher, united in female opposition to male brutality" (Walters 122). Stranger Inside is obviously not the typical women-in-prison B movie. Certainly, on the level of spectacle, it lacks the titillation factor of The Big Doll House or Caged Heat—the shower scenes are episodes of humiliation or expression of grief, for instance.

[21] But the film differs, too, from the potential feminist critique of male brutality and male-dominated society. In this nearly all-female world, male brutality isn't a central issue, because men are largely irrelevant. Treasure's father, for instance, is never even mentioned, and the guard Nelson is the only white male in a speaking role. The film is set in a world of women, and the cinematic gaze is not exploitive but sympathetic. Even the gaze of male characters within the film is not sexualized: when Nelson recites the prison rules to the naked new inmates, he looks at their faces, not their bodies. The structural exploitations one might trace to economic or carceral relations are displaced onto and enacted through women's violence against women. Nor is the problem a corrupt prison authority, which might be fixed by local reforms. The white female warden and a black female guard appear well meaning. Treasure's friend Shadow "works her program," following rules and learning to read, and Treasure herself informs on others in return for transfer to a minimum security prison. The problem with the prison is far more systemic. The film confirms what the research of Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Angela Davis makes clear—that even "relatively liveable conditions" in prisons do not constitute an argument against prison abolition, since prisons continue to deprive people of liberty and separate them from families in response to circumstances better addressed in other ways (Bhavnani and Davis 237).

[22] Family relations, especially mother-child relations, are among those "places where theoretical issues around women in prison and social justice issues intersect" as well as among the black women's stories that have "never been told." Stranger Inside represents the previously invisible and marginalized by tracing the experiences of women in the prison-industrial system through the stories of Treasure Lee and the women around her. Just as one of the effects of the system of chattel slavery in the U.S. was to separate families, including mothers and infants, so, too, does the prison system. In the group therapy sessions in Stranger Inside, several women talk powerfully about the loss of their children, and the grief of feeling that their children hate them for being convicts. Among Treasure's own cellmates, one white woman is released because of the efforts of her daughter, and an Asian woman is sent to the psychiatric ward after her reaction to a letter from her son who plans to return to their native country: connections to children, and the difficulty of maintaining those connections, constitute a crucial dimension of women's experiences of prison. The film's plot, of course, centers on Treasure's search for her mother.

[23] But Stranger Inside presents also people's resilience and their ability to resist oppression by making art and forming alliances. Treasure has a sisterhood of gang girls, including the rapper Leisha and the photographer Shadow. While this non-biological network seems fairly egalitarian, other chosen families in the film are more hierarchical. Brownie is clearly head of her "play family," which includes a "wife" and two "daughters," one of whom, the white Kit, becomes a particular rival of Treasure's. Such elective connections are not enough for Treasure, but when Treasure announces to Brownie that she's her daughter, Brownie insists that that status must be earned. Initially cool to Treasure's claims to the priority of blood relation, Brownie subsequently finds her useful, and puts Treasure to work as a courier and enforcer in her business selling prison contraband, everything from food to drugs.

[24] Stranger Inside pays little attention to the events leading up to the characters' incarcerations, though it hints Treasure was initially arrested for dealing drugs. Prison labor is mentioned only in Shadow's comment that every day that one takes a class or works in prison industry represents a day off one's sentence. But the film does present an alternative economy within the prison, a small-scale venture in family capitalism coordinated by Brownie, and facilitated by the white male guard Nelson. The family business of the prison economy depends on interpersonal bonds (and interpersonal violence) as much as on the cash nexus. Yet Brownie's initial refusal to accept Treasure, her insistence instead on conditional and financially-based demonstrations of loyalty, signals the dependence of what she calls her "game" on the rules of the larger economic playing field. That Nelson is finally subject to disciplinary action within the prison indicates that structures of authority in which the characters operate are not embodied in the figure of white male power, but remain more abstract and elusive. Although in interviews Dunye has commented on the influence of prison studies on the project of Stranger Inside, the film itself omits the larger economic and political forces that have shaped the growth of the prison-industrial system and women's presence within it. (On these forces, see Davis, Prisons 22-39, 84-104; Johnson 19-49.)

[25] But Stranger Inside's fictional story of mother-daughter relations in prison is nonetheless grounded in material relations within the prison-industrial system. The United States is the world's leading jailer, with two million people behind bars, a larger percentage of its residents than any other nation. Although women still make up a small percentage of the total prison population, their rates of incarceration—especially among women of color—have been rapidly increasing—doubling—in the 1990's alone. Ninety percent of the 90,000 women now in U.S. prisons are single mothers, and more than 160,000 American children have mothers in prison. Sometimes, this means that multiple generations of a single family are simultaneously incarcerated, and indeed in Dunye's research for the film, interviewing incarcerated women in Minnesota's Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility, she encountered two mother-daughter pairs of inmates (Willis 32; see also Johnson 34-39; Huling xi).

[26] The imprisonment of multiple generations of African-American women is, of course, not entirely a recent phenomenon. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl includes the story of the seven years Jacobs spent hiding in a tiny garret while her children grew up outside. Linda Brent, the pseudonymous protagonist of Jacobs' memoir, draws on the discourse of motherhood to challenge the hypocrisy and racialization of that ideology; she resolves to escape in part because she fears the effects of slavery on her daughter, yet the process of her escape initially separates her from that daughter. Moreover, both works include representation of an incarceration both coerced and chosen. Linda hides in her garret rather than submit to her slave master, suffering a kind of hyperbolic version of her involuntary imprisonment; Treasure willfully arranges her transfer to a medium security prison to seek her mother.

[27] Indeed, Stranger Inside takes place entirely within prison walls, where the regime of control descends historically, and sometimes visibly, from slavery, as for instance when the strip search of new prisoners repeats scenes of slave auctions. Angela Davis notes the structural and ideological parallels between slavery and the penal system, both insofar as slavery itself "was a system of incarceration because it constructed walls around those it enslaved and determined the possibilities of their physical movement," and insofar as the penitentiary system allowed the continuation of slavery through the convict lease system and more recently in joint venture programs for private corporate use of prison labor (Davis, "Prisons" 204-205). Moreover, Davis focuses on the parallel disappearance of women in scholarly study of slavery and of prisons, "Our historical tendency to render slave women invisible and the way we tend to talk about the penal system as if there were no women in prison" (Davis, "Prisons" 206).

[28] Dunye has commented that one of her aims in the film was "'to romanticize Treasure's passion, not necessarily her world, but her passions and emotions'" (Willis 34). This passionate desire for her mother has an erotic dimension, and is clearly connected to Treasure's desire for other women. The word "lesbian" comes up only in a conflict with a homophobic cellmate whose comments about the word of God backfire when Treasure reminds her that the guard she's having an affair with is a married man. But that cellmate may well be the only straight woman in the film. In the film's gaze, women's emotional and erotic investments in each other are simply the norm. (While homosexuality within prison is often described as "situational," Jonathan Ned Katz cautions that "All homosexuality is situational, influenced and given meaning and character by its location in time and social space" [Katz, 11, cited in Kunzel 254].) Treasure carries three dog-eared pictures of her mother, all showing her with another woman, suggesting that Brownie Lee, too, is a woman who loves women, even if she has not been around to love her young daughter. The first time Treasure sees Brownie in the prison yard, the film moves in slow motion, and music replaces ambient sound—cinematic conventions for the gaze of romantic love.

[29] That Treasure's passion is sexual as well as filial is perhaps most evident when she has sex in the chapel with Sugar, and we see Treasure gazing at a painting of the Madonna and Child. But Treasure's growing awareness of Brownie's ruthlessness has repercussions on her sexuality. The first time we see her having sex in the chapel, the camera pans down from a cross with candles, to Treasure's face as she gazes at the Madonna and Child, and comes. The second time we see this scene, however, the camera pans down from a small statue of Christ, across a sketch study of hands, to an irritated Treasure telling Sugar to stop. If the sketch of hands, which doesn't seem a particularly religious work, signifies the manipulation to which Brownie subjects those in her control, perhaps the Christ image represents the white patriarchy beyond that, the guard Nelson "still the one with the keys."

[30] This blurring between the sexual and the maternal is also evident in Treasure's rivalry with Kit for both Brownie and Sugar, both mother figure and lover. Believing Kit has betrayed her, Brownie excludes her from the family, and persuades Treasure to "take her down" in a fight. Instead, Kit stabs Brownie, and Treasure's offer to donate blood leads to the revelation that Brownie is not Treasure's mother Margaret Lee, but in fact Phyllis Stubbs, the woman who killed her. While this surprise ending changes our reading of some of Brownie's specific actions—like her laugh when she comments on the miracle of finding Treasure, her blood—it leaves potentially open the question of whether Treasure's mistake was in believing the wrong woman was her mother, or more generally in fetishizing the blood relation at all. Moreover, the revelation of Brownie's identity reinforces the parallel between Treasure and Kit, neither of whom, it turns out, is related to Brownie by blood.

[31] The identification with Kit is also colored by eroticism as well as violence. The sex scenes in Stranger Inside are not especially sexy: Treasure and Sugar are both clothed, and most of the camera's attention is devoted to Treasure's face. The Watermelon Woman, in contrast, was the subject of right-wing political attacks particularly for its sex scene between the black protagonist and her white lover, showing much contrasting skin and a number of interesting piercings. Instead, the scenes of extended physical contact in Stranger Inside are the fight scenes between Treasure and Kit. In a dream sequence, Treasure looks down from the upper bunk in the prison yard, to see herself with Brownie, eating oranges and laughing, then sees herself kissing Kit, and finally looks down to see Shadow gazing at her from the lower bunk. This trajectory-from the nurturance of the mother figure to recognition of an erotic/aggressive connection with the white sister figure, to acknowledgment again of the claims of chosen family (and the skepticism Shadow has been expressing all along)—encapsulates the arc of the film. Occurring before Treasure's discovery that Kit is as much Brownie's daughter as she is, the dream nonetheless points toward the trans-racial sisterhood both enabled and disqualified by structural and institutional forces.

[32] As a fellow convict, Kit lacks economic privilege, yet she retains a racial privilege: after her exile from Brownie's family, Kit congregates in the prison yard with her white racist cellmates, who have enlisted the complicity of the guards to allow the interracial battle that climaxes the film. Kit is a sister figure who acts out Treasure's rage against the mother figure by stabbing Phyllis Stubbs (and who resembles Brownie Stubbs precisely in her willingness to kill). This family resemblance is clearly not a matter of blood in the sense of genetic relation, but perhaps of the blood spilled through violence. Yet in the film's fictive narrative, Kit may also be read as dramatizing Treasure's psyche. In a classic essay on American racial politics and family structure, Hortense Spillers suggests that if Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl were a novel, the white mistress "Mrs. Flint" might be read as "the narrator's projection" (Spillers 76). The white foster-sister of Linda Brent's mother, the mistress "visits the captive woman in the figure of a veiled seduction" (Spillers 77). Similarly, Kit constitutes both a kind of "projection" of Treasure's anger and an example of the "historic motif of entangled female sexualities," a sign of what Spillers has called America's "incestuous, interracial genealogy" (Spillers 76).

[33] Thus Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl resonates with Stranger Inside most evidently through the entangling of women's stories and the interrogations of family in the context of maternal loss; yet the film also shares the earlier work's attention not only to kin and community, but also to individual bodily boundaries. Both works engage the metaphorical and material implications of imagery of food and eating. Eating is a most literal form of incorporating, taking in, internalizing the other; particularly between mother and child, it is a vehicle of primary bonding, the mother producing food for the baby out of her own body. Jacobs and other writers on slavery have suggested how this relation is distorted when the mother's body is not legally her "own." A number of critics have noted that abolitionist literature often figured enslaved bodies as consumable food (e.g., Newbury 162), and Holly Blackford has detailed the use of eating imagery in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in which enslaved black bodies both provide food for their white owners and become food, consumable objects. As wet-nurses, cooks, and agricultural workers, slaves literally fed the system that stole their bodies and labor. The role of the wet-nurse, in particular, positions the slave mother as both feeding the white child and being herself consumed at the expense of her own child: Jacobs reports that because her grandmother also nursed the owner's child, "my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food" (Jacobs 10). Figuratively, as well, slaves are cast as food in the names and natures of some of the tortures and punishments masters inflict on slaves. To be "peeled and pickled" is to be whipped until the skin comes off, and washed in brine (Jacobs 34). In one torture Jacobs describes, the fat from cooking meat is dripped onto the slave's body (Jacobs 40). In another case she reports, a slave was locked in a cotton gin until he became food for rats (Jacobs 42). Peeled, pickled, cooked, and devoured, the commodified and comestible enslaved body was subject to the control of the masters.

[34] Often, these tortures were ordered in response to slaves' attempts to still their own hungers, for masters not only treated slaves as food to be consumed, but also tried to control what slaves themselves did and didn't eat. This might take the form of forced feeding as well as deprivation of food: Jacobs tells of a slave's being forced to eat dog vomit when the master's pet reacted badly to a dish she had cooked. More commonly, masters stinted on rations and tried to prevent slaves from eating. Jacobs describes her mistress spitting in all the leftover dishes to discourage slaves from consuming them. Stealing food was a standard excuse for whipping, and often served as the public explanation for what was really punishment for the slave having revealed the white paternity of a slave child (Jacobs 14-16). That is, the attempt to control oral boundaries sometimes stood in for masters' violations of slaves' sexual boundaries. But all of the modes by which the boundary between the inside and outside of the body is permeable—eating and sex, pregnancy and violence—were held to be under the legal control of slave masters.

[35] Stranger Inside illustrates that, like the slavemasters, the prison system seeks to control prisoners' bodily boundaries. While sexual contact between prisoners is ostensibly forbidden, however, it is control of food that we see enforced in the film. Prisoners are not allowed to have food in their cells, and Treasure is punished for an illegal cup of noodles, indicating that food, the most fundamental material necessity, is connected to a rebellion against the strictures of the system. It also seems to function as a sign of nurturance and care. When Brownie wants to woo Treasure, she offers her oranges. When Treasure feels slighted by Brownie's reluctance to have Treasure transferred to her cell, Brownie placates her with a bite of fried rice. Yet food also functions as a commodity. Treasure trades a cup of noodles for a bed that is not on the floor of the overcrowded prison cell, and both she and Brownie plan commerce in forbidden food.

[36] But as resistance, comfort, or commodity, food and eating remain also signs of potentially violent control. When Kit is short fifty dollars of her payment to Brownie, Brownie stabs her in the leg with her fork, wipes it on her trousers, and calmly continues eating. When Brownie later approaches Treasure about "taking Kit down," Treasure is working in the kitchen, and Brownie casually fondles a fork, a reminder of her violent appetite for control. This control is retrospectively extended to Brownie's earlier gestures of apparent nurturing, revealed as modes of manipulation, ways of winning Treasure's loyalty. For instance, Brownie has Treasure spend a night in her cell, because she "just want[s] to spend a little time with [her] girl"; but after they play checkers and bond over a discussion of good food, Brownie uses Treasure to beat a rival gang member, and then sends her back to her own cell.

[37] Informing on Nelson and Brownie's gang in order to obtain her own transfer to a minimum-security prison, Treasure effectively spits out the version of Brownie she had earlier swallowed. Yet the conclusion of the film suggests how intimately and internally Treasure is shaped by her familial experiences of prison. The film's title initially seems to refer to the mother who is a stranger, the mother inside the prison. But as the song over the closing credits puts it, it refers also to "the Stranger Inside me," the internal difference within the subject. At the very end of the film, Treasure has arrived at another prison, and introduces herself as Brownie. She takes on the name of both the mother she did not know and of the murderer who killed that mother. In renaming herself, she signals her renunciation of the hope of finding the biological mother who might have treasured her, who might have named her Treasure. But she also incorporates that mother into her new identity, claiming an identification with both the possibly good, lost, dead mother, and with the surrogate mother who killed her. In this double internalizing, she is perhaps killing her old self and mothering herself anew. Moreover, her final self-naming as Brownie may signify also an acknowledgment that just as the earlier Brownies had been shaped by the prison system—separated from her daughter, killed, hardened into an agent of the violence to which she is also subjected—so, too, has the protagonist had to negotiate a resistance that is also an accommodation.

[38] Treasure accesses the institutional power represented in the white female warden in order to negotiate a new position within the coercive structures in which she finds herself. That Stranger Inside was financed in large part by HBO may represent an analogous accommodation by the filmmaker. Similarly, in Watermelon Woman, Cheryl uses resources gleaned from an oppressive system of representation to interrogate and supplant traditional hegemonic images of black women, and to articulate an alternative structure of black lesbian looking relations, grounded in a network of kin and multiracial queer community. Stranger Inside develops these looking relations to further explore a black matrilineal erotics and the shaping force of the prison over the most intimate territory of the body. In both films, the quest for the figurative or absent black (lesbian) mother relies on diverse familial relations to provoke the protagonist's invention or internalization of the object of the quest. The American family has long been interracial, and Dunye's films explore the violence and the eroticism at the persisting racial boundaries between women. But the traversal of racialized and bodily boundaries helps articulate the decentered site of women's emotional and erotic bonds with each other as locations of agency. Engaging with the past and present histories of African-American women's experiences reveals both the permeability of borders and the power of creative transgressions. Negotiating the borders between institutional accommodation and critical resistance, Dunye's films illuminate passions that have never before been told.

Works Cited

Bhavnani, Kum-Kum, and Angela Davis. "Women in Prison: Researching Race in Three National Contexts." Racing Research, Researching Race: Methodological Dilemmas in Critical Race Studies. Ed. France Winddance Twine and Jonathan W. Warren. NY: NYU P, 2000. 227-245.

Blackford, Holly. "Figures of Orality: The Master, The Mistress, The Slave Mother in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Papers on Language & Literature 37:3 (Summer 2001): 314-337.

Braidt, Andrea B. "Queering Ethnicity, Queering Sexuality: A Paradigmatic Shift in the Politics of Cinematic Representation in Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman (1996)." Simulacrum America: The USA and the Popular Media. Ed. Elisabeth Kraus and Carolin Auer. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000. 181-188.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

—. "Prison Abolition." Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems. Ed. Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, Clyde Taylor, and Regina Austin. NY: Norton, 1999. 196-214.

Dunye, Cheryl, dir. Stranger Inside. Wr. Cheryl Dunye and Catherine Crouch, prod. Effie Brown et al. C-Hundred Film Corp./HBO Films/ Stranger Baby Productions, 2001, DVD.

—. The Watermelon Woman. Wr. Cheryl Dunye, prod. Alexandra Juhasz, Barry Swindon, Cate Wilson. Dancing Girl/First Run Features, 1996. Videocassette.

Fuchs, Cynthia. "'Hard to Believe': Reality Anxieties in Without You I'm Nothing, Paris is Burning, and 'Dunyementaries.'" Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, and Gay Documentary. Ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 190-206.

Huling, Tracy. "Foreword" to Scheffler, ed., Wall Tappings. xi-xiii.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2001.

Johnson, Paula C. Inner Lives: Voices of African American Women in Prison. New York: NYU Press, 2003. 19-49.

Katz, Jonathan Ned, ed. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Kunzel, Regina G. "Situating Sex: Prison Sexual Culture in the MidTwentiethCentury United States." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8:3 (2002): 253270.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Mulvey, Laura. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by Duel in the Sun." Framework 15/16/17 (Summer 1981): 1215.

—. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16:3 (1975): 618.

Newbury, Michael. "Eaten Alive: Slavery and Celebrity in Antebellum America." ELH 61.1 (1994) 159-187.

Scheffler, Judith A., Ed. Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women's Prison Writings 200 to the Present. NYC: Feminist Press at CUNY. Second ed. 2002.

Spillers, Hortense. "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book." Diacritics 17.2 (Summer 1987): 64-81.

Sullivan, Laura L. "Chasing Fae: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility." Callaloo 23.1 (2000) : 448-460.

Walker, Alice. "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1983. 231-243.

Walters, Suzana Danuta. "Caged Heat: The (R)evolution of Women-in-Prison Films." Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies. Ed. Martha McCaughey and Neal King. Austin, U of Texas P, 2001. 106-123.

Linda Williams. Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

Willis, Holly. "Breaking Out: Cheryl Dunye Nabs Big Audiences on the Small Screen with Her HBO Prison Feature Stranger Inside." The Independent Film and Video Monthly. 24.5 (June 2001): 32-35.

Winokur, Mark. "Body and Soul: Identifying (with) the Black Lesbian Body in Cheryl Dunye's Watermelon Woman." Recovering the Black Female Body: Self-Representations by African-American Women. Ed. Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U P , 2001. 231-252.