The story of a smug white insurance salesman who wakes up one day with black skin, 1970's Watermelon Man was originally planned as a vehicle for a white actor like Jack Lemmon or Alan Arkin. The film also originally featured an upbeat ending in which the salesman's stint as an oppressed minority is merely a dream, albeit the kind designed to teach Rod Serling-approved values of tolerance and equality. When Melvin Van Peebles came onboard as director, however, he transformed a white liberal morality play into a cinematic howl of rage. The result is a strange combination of sitcom and tragedy, black anger and sanitized shtick. The conflict between what Van Peebles was given and what he delivered gives the film a bracing, caustic tension that carries it through trying patches of hackneyed comedy, clumsy sermonizing, and cartoonish attempts at satire.
The film's degree of success stands as a tribute to the skill and comic chops of star Godfrey Cambridge, whose motormouth salesman comes off as simultaneously obnoxious and endearing, a self-infatuated predecessor to Ricky Gervais in The Office. Transcending mere caricature, Cambridge plays a reactionary suburban husband and father whose nonstop wisecracks annoy everyone around him, particularly his long-suffering liberal wife (Estelle Parsons). Only a sudden, radical shift in his racial complexion can crack Cambridge's bubble of self-absorption, forcing him to confront the inequities of the harsh outside world.
Intriguingly, Cambridge's sarcasm remains consistent throughout Watermelon Man, though its meaning and context changes drastically. As the film opens, it's the condescending humor of the complacent middle class sneering at everyone lower on the socioeconomic ladder. After Cambridge's racial alteration, it becomes the angry, defiant comedy of a member of the underclass using absurdity to survive oppression.
Watermelon Man grows bleaker as it progresses, pushed by Van Peebles' unhinged score, which asserts his personality and sensibility as strongly as his direction. "This ain't America, is it?" he howls mockingly on the soundtrack, as Cambridge endures one comic indignity after another. The film answers that question, arguing persuasively that racism and injustice are as American in their own way as any of the country's nobler values. The pounding prelude to a cultural and cinematic revolution, Watermelon Man nearly bubbles over with the rage that exploded outright with Van Peebles' follow-up, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.