LIBERIAN-BORN Cheryl Dunye grew up in Philadelphia, which is where she began her career as a filmmaker, a term that includes directing, producing, and acting in her films. Her first films were a series of shorts about her experience as a Black lesbian, and they combined documentary and narrative elements in what came to be called “Dunyementaries.”
Dunye’s first feature film, The Watermelon Woman (1996), has been widely recognized as the first feature about African-American lesbians to be directed by a Black lesbian. The film is an example of a Dunyementary in which the director sets out to explore the presence of Black lesbians in early cinema and discovers an actress known as “the Watermelon Woman” who played “mammy” roles in movies of the 1930s. Her next feature film, Stranger Inside (2001), explored a mother-daughter relationship involving two women who are being held in the same prison, and also explored prison conditions and other issues faced by incarcerated women.
After directing a number of short films, some in collaboration with Sarah Schulman, Dunye started focusing on projects in television rather than film, directing episodes of several series, including Queen Sugar, Sacred Lies, and All Rise. Her most recent project was directing an episode of the six-part TV documentary Pride (2021). She is currently preparing to direct several episodes of the popular Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. In addition to her media career, Dunye is an educator who has taught at UCLA, Pomona College, the New School for Social Research, and San Francisco State, among other institutions.
This interview was conducted by phone in May.