Some topics are undeniable social landmines.
Politics. Religion. The Illuminati plot to make daytime TV so terrible the unemployed are forced to switch off their sets in disgust and sell their dignity for minimum wage.
When you're broaching stuff like this, you're bound to come off as a jerk to someone, even if it's just to actual jerks. If, however, you can make your case half as funny as 1970's Watermelon Man, you've got nothing to worry about.
During the civil rights upheaval, Godfrey Cambridge is a casually and loudly bigoted white man. His comfortable world is shaken apart when he wakes one morning to find his skin's turned black -- and despite all his efforts, he might never be able to go back to the way things were.
As you may be able to guess from that synopsis, the title, or familiarity with director Melvin Van Peebles, Watermelon Man has race on its mind.
Race, in case you're visiting from a distant future where we're all somewhat brown, or steely-skinned robots, is a topic so endlessly controversial it's capable of supporting a whole ecosystem of heated sub-arguments such as whether it's even worth arguing about in the first place. It's a minor miracle a major house such as Columbia Pictures would even touch a movie that opens with its lead actor in whiteface.
Thank the maker they did, because Watermelon Man is great.
Most movies with a big, hulking message are boring, exasperating, or so ham-handed that if those hands were ground up and cooked several religions would forbid eating them. How do you avoid that trap? By being really, really dang funny.
Van Peebles and writer Herman Raucher break out every weapon in the comic arsenal. They unload puns, slapstick, smash cuts, stereotypes, screwball dialogue, and bitterly hilarious satire. When Cambridge's ostensibly progressive wife Estelle Parsons first sees his new skin tone, she exclaims: "You look like a negro! I mean, a dark one! Should I hide the money?"
Not every shot lands, but you can miss a few when you're hitting that hard. But the amazing thing about Watermelon Man is it's not just a sharp social satire.
Between the writing, the direction, and the performances from Cambridge and Parsons, it's also an expansive perspective on how it can feel to be black. One of the trickiest things about race is you can never really understand what it's like for somebody else, even within our own demographics.
With a movie as brilliant as Watermelon Man, you can catch an awfully good glimpse of how it looks to one man.
* Contact Ed Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org