“I think, therefore I scam.”—William Douglas Street Jr. (Wendell B. Harris Jr.)
There once was a man named William Douglas Street Jr. who, over decades, impersonated a journalist, a professional football player, a lawyer, and a doctor (presumably not in that order), amongst other such specialized professions. Furthermore, so the story goes, Street Jr. performed upwards of 75 successful hysterectomies when he impersonated a doctor. This, of course, without medical training, for Street Jr. didn’t even make it out of high school.
Then came along a man named Wendell B. Harris Jr., a Julliard-trained actor, who, in the late-’80s, wrote, starred in, and directed a film about the aforementioned conman titled Chameleon Street. The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, is a kaleidoscopic romp, a meditation on race and performance in America, fetishization, and what white people smell like when left out in the rain (“wet dogs”).
As part of the 59th New York Film Festival, programmers put together a Revivals Program, in which “important works from renowned filmmakers that have been digitally remastered, restored, and preserve” were offered up to audiences. Wendell B. Harris, Jr.’s Chameleon Street was offered up alongside Sedat Pakay’s 1973 James Baldwin: From Another Place, which finds the writer walking the streets of Istanbul as he ruminates on being black America, the role of the poet in society, and the public’s obsession with the private lives of its celebrities (a practice he deems as inherent to the 20th-century).
The films fit well together, as both Baldwin and Harris Jr. respectively find themselves at a distance from, yet trapped by, American society. For Baldwin, the literary giant, he awakens in his Istanbul room, lamenting the futility of escaping the United States, as he claims American power has become ubiquitous. This statement has multiple interpretations, for American power has taken on different forms of domination around the globe, donning the guise of militaristic, economic, and cultural.
This has only cemented itself in the nearly five decades since the release of Pakay’s film. Walking through the streets, too, we see how American attitudes towards whomever it deems an “other” have encapsulated the world. Everywhere Baldwin walks, he is met with the gaze of the citizens of Istanbul. This can partially be attributed to the presence of a camera, for it still warrants the subject’s gaze to this day, but also to international knowledge of the mistreatment of black people in America and the amazement and curiosity conjured by seeing such a person in the flesh.
Harris Jr., on the other hand, plays a man disillusioned with the typical American lifestyle (we meet him while he works for his father’s burglar alarm company), and decides to don a series of masks to stay afloat in a society built for “wily Caucasians”, not himself. During an interview with NYFF Assistant Programmer Dan Sullivan, Harris Jr. remarked that, upon reading about Street Jr.’s escapades in the newspaper, he considered his story to be a “great representation of what goes on under the skin of this country”.
Harris Jr.’s film, difficult as its topics may be, provided me with the pleasure comparable to what one feels when discovering a new favorite poem. It is a pleasure both aesthetically as the film, like its main character, adopts a chameleonic form, and politically, as hints of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and W.E.B. DuBois sneak into the screenplay. Indeed, Chameleon Street demands multiple viewings to unpack and consider the many ideas therein.
Where Baldwin’s stated weapons were his typewriter and his pen, Street Jr.’s were his cunning and adaptability. While both men were accused of being troublemakers, or unfit for society, by authorities in the case of Street Jr., or middle-America and the likes of the FBI and CIA in the case of Baldwin, we must remember the words of Street Jr., “You do what you have to do the way you do it.”