Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street

Very grateful to enjoy two theater screenings of Chameleon Street and Breathless in 4K over the same weekend. They’re very similar, they have similar attitudes. The actual screen at Lincoln Center is huge. It’s the most free-wheeling black movie, completely independent in every sense. Harris did whatever he wanted, so they made sure he couldn’t do it again. Breathless was banned for four years, Chameleon Street won first place at Sundance and got banned for life. At least that’s how it seems, this was the first time I considered that maybe Harris just didn’t have anything else to say so he eventually accepted his fate. He took his movie to Sundance and it beat Metropolitan and it beat To Sleep With Anger. The story of its botched distribution, so botched that it was never properly distributed at all, exemplifies the space between (I)ndustry and (i)industry. The film was first released on DVD in 2007, 18 years later. I don’t think it was the content alone that spooked everyone away, certainly, intelligent rebelliousness makes bureaucratic men weak in the knees, but the construction of the film has an energy and a style that makes snarling seem cool.

While it never ignores race, instead of taking the traditional approach of dramatizing race as a problem big enough to absorb fate, it cleverly treats race as a kind of role playing game. Perhaps Soul Man (1986), with C. Thomas Howell in full black face, is the white inverse/counterpart. In this way it gets down to the everyday level of experience. Race is one part of a person’s total performance, sometimes it dominates the other elements in an interaction, but Harris is trying to show that identity is formed through the relation between all categories of distinction. It has the metaphysics of the French New Wave because it’s not just a movie with an actor playing a character who acts, it’s a movie about the essence of performance, and this extends into the categories of race, class, and sex. Harris combines this theoretical layering of life and art with a Godard-like knack for pulling leaves off the branches of his interests and littering them throughout the frame. Explicit references to Marshall McLuhan, Jean Cocteau, expensive department stores, the list of Doug’s favorite musicians, a 1940s psychology experiment aimed at identifying children’s racial attitudes through the use of dolls, its a totally one-of-a-kind collage.

People don’t seem to really understand, should we say, the class dimensions of DuBois’s public life and intellectual work. Regarding “double consciousness,” which I could see as something attached to the discourse of this movie, having two identities in one self. I think this idea is most useful by relating it to how every move Doug makes is an attempt to enjoy upward mobility. He’s chasing the bag so he can buy more than a modest life for his wife. He’s constantly interpreting the procedural measures of white people who analyze and observe him from above. Their respective positions are fixed on the surface, until Doug figuratively “pulls one over” on them in the most literal sense. This power to interpret and create acceptance by being “unique” is connected to DuBois’s Talented Tenth in a more complicated way than is often taught. Chameleon Street is far too personal to represent the social effect of a self proclaimed black intellectual and financial elite but the idea and the methods are sharply presented here. The third act stretches a bit, the movie loses its shape, but this rickety form adds to the character’s psychology as it changes over time. It gives an answer to the question everyone is always asking him — why? It’s for love, and love costs money.

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