Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) lives in an average suburban neighborhood with his seemingly liberal housewife Althea (Estelle Parsons), who tolerates her husband's character flaws out of love. Every morning when Jeff wakes up, he spends some time under a tanning machine, hits the speedbag, drinks a health drink, and races the bus to work on foot.
Jeff presents himself as happy-go-lucky and quite a joker, but others tend to see him as obnoxious and boorish. Althea, who watches the race riots every night on TV with great interest, chastises Jeff for not having sympathy for the problems of black Americans.
One morning, Jeff wakes up to find that his pigment has changed. He tries to fall back asleep, thinking that it is a dream, but to no avail. He tries taking a shower to wash the "black" off him, but finds it does not work, when Althea walks into the bathroom, and screams. He explains to her that the "Negro in the bathroom" is him.
At first, Jeff believes this to be the result of spending too much time under the tanning machine. He spends almost the entire day at home, afraid to go out of the house, only going out once to venture into the "colored part of town" in order to find a pharmacy to buy "the stuff they use in order to make themselves look white." His attempts to change his skin color fail.
The next day, he is persuaded to get up and go to work. Things start out well at first, until Jeff is accused of robbery while running alongside the bus to work. The policeman assumes that, since he is a black man, he must have stolen something. During his lunch break, he makes an appointment with his doctor who cannot explain Jeff's condition either. After several calls, the doctor suggests that Jeff might be more comfortable with a black doctor.
Returning home, he finds Althea afraid to answer the phone. He does not understand why until he receives a call from a man telling him to '"Move out, nigger". At work the next day, a secretary (who had previously ignored him) makes several advances toward him, finding him more attractive as a black man. Jeff's boss suggests that they could drum up extra business with a "Negro" salesman.
At home one evening, he finds the people who had made the threatening phone calls, who offer him $50,000 for his home. Jeff manages to raise the price to $100,000. Althea sends the children to live with a relative and later leaves her husband. Finally accepting the fact that he is black, Jeff resigns his regular job, buys an apartment building, and starts his own insurance company. The very last scene shows him practicing martial arts with a group of black menial workers, apparently having become one of the militants he used to put down.
Herman Raucher wrote the script on spec in 1969, after realizing that several of his friends who espoused liberal sympathies still admitted to holding on to racist ideologies. Columbia Pictures liked the idea but were afraid to make the film without a black director; they hired Van Peebles based on his film Story of a Three Day Pass.
Godfrey Cambridge plays the role of Jeff Gerber in whiteface for the first few minutes of the film, and then goes without the makeup when his character changes into a black man. Before director Melvin Van Peebles had come into the project, the studio had told him that they were planning to cast a white actor like Alan Arkin or Jack Lemmon to play the part. Van Peebles suggested that they cast a black actor instead.
Raucher and Van Peebles frequently clashed on set, as Raucher intended the movie to be a satire of white, liberal America, whereas Van Peebles wanted to change Raucher's script to make it a black power movie. Raucher ended up novelizing his own screenplay to ensure that his original vision for the story survived in some form. Writing the book himself also ensured that Van Peebles could not enact a clause in his contract that would have allowed him to write it.
On the film's DVD release, Van Peebles says that Raucher wanted the film to end with Gerber waking up to discover that the events of the movie had only been a nightmare, and convinced studio executives to allow him to film two alternate endings. Per Van Peebles he only filmed the current ending of the movie, forgetting to shoot the "it was all a dream" ending "by accident." Raucher's novelization of his own script, however, includes the "workout" ending.
Columbia was happy with the finished product, and the film was a financial success, leading the studio to offer Van Peebles a three-picture contract. Instead of taking their offer, Van Peebles made the independent film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which later turned out to not only be the highest grossing independent film of 1971, but also the highest grossing independent film up to that point. Following that film's success, Columbia tore up Van Peebles' contract.
Van Peebles wrote the music to Watermelon Man himself, in order to have creative control. A soundtrack album was released in 1970, and "Love, that's America", a song from the film and soundtrack, was released as a single in the same year. The single was mentioned as a top pick in Billboard Magazine's Oct 31, 1970 issue.
The song is narrated from the point of view of someone walking around America, and seeing "people run through the streets, blood streaming from where they been beat", and declaring "naw, this ain't America, you can't fool me".
The soundtrack album was never released on compact disc, although it was released as a digital download through Amazon MP3 and iTunes. In 2011, "Love, that's America" gained new notice as part of a video set to footage of Occupy Wall Street.Track listing
All tracks written by Melvin Van Peebles.