BadAzz MoFo celebrates Black History Month 2012 by focusing on Black Cinema—a look at the films, filmmakers, and actors that have contributed to the black diaspora in film.
Wendell B. Harris Jr. wrote, produced, directed and stars in Chameleon Street, an unconventional mix of humor and drama as William Douglas Street, a real-life conman from Michigan who earned legendary status for his elaborate scams. At various points in his career, Street pretended to be a lawyer, a journalist and a doctor—he even performed surgery—all in the attempt to find some sort of financial success. But as presented by Harris, Street is not so much a conman looking to get paid, as he is a body always in search of a new identity to define himself. Harris plays Street as a smug opportunist who is more often than not, the smartest person in the room. At times, it seems like Street’s elaborate ruses are meant more as challenges for himself, than for those around him. It’s not so much if he can fool other people as it is whether or not he can successfully become whatever it is he has set out to become. This makes for a far more fascinating and complex character than a typical, greedy conman.
There is very little conventional about Chameleon Street as the film moves in a non-linear, often choppy, and at times confusing manner, with Street narrating as if he is in the room with the audience. Characters are introduced, and it can be hard to remember if Harris has already brought them in to the story, or if he is just dropping them into the narrative without explanation. In any other film, that might a detriment, but Harris makes it work in Chameleon Street and it becomes almost a tool of deception like those used by Street himself. And whatever pitfalls the film may have—which include some of the obvious stumbling blocks of low-budget films with limited resources—Harris’ film is a triumph. His script is nothing short of brilliant, with some truly inspired moments of dialog. In one of the film’s best scenes, a white racist calls Street a “porch monkey,” to which he responds, “You did say more funky? That is what he said, isn’t it, more funky? Not porch monkey. More funky?” The confrontation builds with the intellectually superior Street verbally assaulting the racist, only to get his ass kicked. While in prison, Street finds himself about to be turned into the wife of another prisoner, an experience he describes to the audience by telling them, “I could smell his genitalia as it wafted across the cell.” But as with most of the dire circumstances he finds himself in, Street is able to pretend to be something—in this case, crazy—that helps him to escape his fate. And if any of this sounds remotely familiar, it is because at its best moments, Chameleon Street channels both the humor, rage and observational dexterity of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Harris manages to deliver the sort of film that aside from his concert movies, Pryor never seemed to be able to make—one that refuses to dull the sharp edges of humor in favor of finding a wider audience.
After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 1989, Chameleon Street went on to play at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the same award given to sex, lies and videotape the year before. This was when Sundance was beginning to really make a name for itself, and a new wave of independent American cinema was emerging that was finding more of an audience in the mainstream. The story as I heard it was that Harris was offered a deal for the rights to Chameleon Street so that it could be remade with a white actor in the lead role. Supposedly, it was felt that a mainstream audience would not believe that a black man could successfully pull off scams that had him pretending to be things like a doctor or a lawyer. Whether or not this is true, I can’t say (but it does not sound all that absurd to me). Whatever the reason or reasons may be, Chameleon Street became one of those films that was never given the opportunity to shine like it deserved. Many of the other movies and filmmakers to emerge from Sundance during the 1980s and 90s helped lay down the groundwork for the new wave of Sundance/Miramax indie films that defined both decades, and helped launch the careers of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Reginald Hudlin and Kevin Smith to name a few. But while those filmmakers and their debut features have become fixtures of the independent cinema landscape, Wendell Harris and Chameleon Street somehow managed to slip through the cracks.