Director: Wendell B. Harris Jr. Run Time: 94 min. Release Year: 1991
Starring: Amina Fakir, Angela Leslie, Wendell B. Harris Jr.
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival—yet criminally underseen for over three decades—Chameleon Street recounts the improbable but true story of Michigan con man Douglas Street, the titular “chameleon” who successfully impersonated his way up the socioeconomic ladder by posing as a magazine reporter, an Ivy League student, a respected surgeon, and a corporate lawyer. Elevated by a dexterous performance and daring direction from multi-hyphenate actor-writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr., the film pins a lens on race, class and performance in American identity, which has lost none of its relevance. At once piercingly funny and aesthetically mischievous, Chameleon Street is a “lost masterpiece of Black American cinema” (BFI) long overdue to take its rightful place in the independent film canon.
Newly restored in 4K from the original camera negative under the supervision of Wendell B. Harris Jr.
“Having heard about Chameleon Street for years as “The Masterpiece That Never Got A Release And Thus Has Been Lost in Time,” I was nervous to watch it. Could anything live up to that? Chameleon Street miraculously does.
What’s most shocking, besides Wendell B. Harris Jr’s total control of every aspect of this film as a first time everything, is that it feels like there was totally an audience for this. Chameleon Street is famous, or infamous, for winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and NO ONE buying it, all giving the reason that, “There’s no audience for this.” The best offer Harris got was months later when he went to Hollywood to try again and was pitched selling remake rights, which would then be used as a vehicle for, and I quote from Harris himself, “Arsenio, Will Smith or Sinbad.” Holy fuck.
This was post-Spike, but pre-Singleton, so perhaps if it had just come out a few years later, it would have had a chance, but even then I could see it possibly being judged as “Too Black for White audiences, not Black enough for Black audiences,” that horrible cliche that has never been proved to actually exist.
The most striking thing about its potential is that I think the dialogue has more in common with a ’90s sensibility that didn’t exist yet. The second scene is in a van, and there’s banter between Harris and the driver, and it’s quick, it’s pop culture obsessed, and it is exactly what become the cliche of ’90s dialogue, but in 1989 before anyone was looking for that. Once again, it was just a little before its time in that sense.
There was an audience for Chameleon Street, not a huge one, but certainly big enough to justify an arthouse run in 1990 and probably out perform its expectations, sort of like Daughters of the Dust would do a year later.
Forget commercial appeal, though, it’s wonderful art. Harris goes off on some Orson Welles shit, his direction probably his weakest point, and only because his writing and acting was so great that his workman style seems a little out of character considering the flash of the other two things, but it actually helps keep things grounded and ultimately serves the story, which is the point.
Through Harris’s writing, direction and acting, William Douglas Street Jr. is wholly unique as a character, the film is in the image of that character creating an end result that is kind of its own thing. Steven Soderbergh was the head of the jury that awarded Chameleon Street the Grand Prize. He said, “I just have never seen a movie like this, so I felt very strongly that we had to reward this film.” Even when Spielberg made Catch Me If You Can 13 years later, which touches on a similar plot, Catch Me If You Can might as well be an ET sequel, it has about that much in common with Chameleon Street in substance and style.
Chameleon Street really is a masterpiece, it’s one of the greatest debuts of all time, and I’m ready to set fire to the world for the injustice that it is 30 years later and Wendell B. Harris Jr. has still yet to have made another movie.” – John Frankensteiner, Letterboxd