The Illegible Sunday Intertitle: Holmy

A short comic “race film,” A BLACK SHERLOCK HOLMES is as interesting for its playful reworking of Conan Doyle’s sleuth in African-American terms as it is for having seemingly been filmed in an acid bath — nitrate decomposition and fungus have had their way with the celluloid, creating subaquatic rippling and shimmering in the image and dancing bubbles and gloop that boil across the liquefying scenery and actors. Bill Morrison could basically put his name in front of this and it’d be a Bill Morrison experimental film.

I actually find it hard to tell how racist the film is, because of this obscuring patina and equally obscuring “underfilm”, to use a Theodore Roszak term from his essential novel Flicker. The concept would seem to be playing with the joke that a Black Sherlock would be dopey and foolish — there are lots of silly Sherlock parodies in cinema, but using race to explain his silliness is extremely worrisome, and the film being made by R.G Phillips and Ebony Films Co. would make that tragic rather than purely hateful.

Couldn’t tell if all the weird hairstyles and moustaches were parodies of white folks’ goofy fashions, but I’ve seen other heroines with ironed hair in race films of the time…

But in fact, though all the actors are playing it clownish, the detective, “Knick Carter” (let’s parody all the fictional tecs while we’re at it) isn’t obviously stupid, thankfully. Or if he is, I couldn’t see it through the decalcomania*. The plot is a little opaque, because it’s a surprisingly epistolary film, driven forward by letters exchanged, which the characters react to wide-eyed but which we can read barely if at all. It’s a great simulation of macular degeneration, but without the occasional hallucinations. Or maybe with them — how could we tell? Somewhere in there I glimpse a business card, always a welcome moment in a silent film, here doubly so, as it reads “Baron Jazz, Minister Munitions, Hot Dog, Africa.” He should get together with Chaplin’s Baron DooBugle, the prime minister of Greenland.

Everybody in the film has a comedy name (the heroine is Sheeza Sneeze) but besides that I can’t tell if it was ever funny, maybe because I used The Rite of Spring as a soundtrack, which didn’t match the main action at all but seemed to accompany the frenzied molten underfilm perfectly.

*Decalcomania is a Max Ernst word for that nursery school activity where you smear paint on a page, fold it over, and peel it apart to create lovely splodgy patina where the colours cling to one another. Celluloid rolled in reels and melting into plasticky jam from old age does the same thing when it’s unspooled.

One Response to “The Illegible Sunday Intertitle: Holmy”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

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