Humor and Racism

The Watermelon Patch
R: Wallace McCutcheon, Edwin S. Porter. P: Edison Manufacturing Company. USA 1905

“Porter, like other filmmakers of the pre-1908 period, often portrayed outlaws who threaten society as members of fringe or outcast groups, with such characterization serving as motivation for their illegal activities. This is the case with the racial humor and black stereotyping in Porter and McCutcheon’s The Watermelon Patch (October 1905). Their happy-go-lucky thieves (…) are comedic counterparts to the ruthless, scheming lovers of white women in The Clansman. The Watermelon Patch begins as an absurdist comedy: a number of ‘darkies’ steal  watermelons and flee, pursued by redneck farmers dressed in skeleton costumes. Losing their pursuers, the darkies reach their destination, where they dance andenjoy their  watermelon until the rednecks arrive. When the whites board up the exits and seal the chimney, the darkies are soon covered with soot, another racial ‘joke’. (In 1905 many Negro performers still went on stage in black face—as did white actors impersonating blacks. This joke played with the ‘childish’ belief that black skin is black because it is covered with soot.)
In the film’s last three shots, Porter alternated exterior and interior scenes using an editorial construction similar to the ending of Life of an American Fireman . After showing the rednecks sealing the chimney, Porter cut to the interior, where the ‘darkies’ hear the intruders, grow quiet, and slowly feel the ill-effects of the smoke. Realizing what is happening, they make their escape. The final shot, once again of the exterior, returns to the moment when the darkies begin to make their escape. It shows them coming out of the house and receiving the blows of the amused rednecks. What is fascinating, both cinematically and perhaps as an example of unconscious racism, is the contrast between the exterior scenes in which the handful of rednecks dwarf the tiny shack and the interior scenes in which the shack comfortably holds twenty ‘darkies’—reducing them to the size of pygmies.
The Watermelon Patch is as revealing of the state of American cinema in 1905 as it is of American racism.”
Charles Musser: Before the Nickelodeon. Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley / Los Angeles / Oxford 1991, p. 312 f.

>>> Life of an American Fireman on this site: Edwin S. Porter: Blockbuster for Edison