A curious film helmed by a hand of whim and sheer inspiration, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street (1989) overshot the curve by about three decades in Black Cinema’s currently growing renaissance. Stitched together with imaginative, if crude, force and performed with an at turns churlish and inventive sense of impromptu, Harris Jr.’s film divided early critics who were either waylaid by its rough construction or intrigued by its true-to-life narrative.
Based on the travails of real-life con-artist William Douglas Street Jr., who impersonated several occupational roles, from doctors and lawyers to athletes and reporters, Chameleon Street tells the story of a Black man’s surveillance and journey through the working world and its social orders. It is as every bit the fascinating prosopography it sets out to be as it is a disquieting commentary on the Black community’s ongoing struggles to be wholly accepted into the culture of industry in America.
Chameleon Street opens with William’s (played by Harris Jr.) humble beginnings as a young man working any number of side jobs to make ends meet. After much conversation and deliberation with a round of friends, he and company find low-rent ways to scam people. William then poses as a reporter, only to be later found out and emerge twice as bold in his perfidious endeavors. Upping the ante on the stakes, William’s scams become grander, impersonating doctors who perform hysterectomies (reports put the number beyond 36 operations). From there (various scams in between, and jail time), William puts in time as a lawyer. Through this, he maintains a hopeless family life that is unravelling due to his various cons and infidelities. Once again, he is turned over to the feds by a source William has least suspected.
If the general synopsis sounds routine, Harris Jr. certainly does not execute the story in any routine manner. Chameleon Street, at times, is a dizzying collage of ideas that winds and curlicues through a series of events and towards a conclusion that, while not entirely satisfying, is befitting of its shambolic narrative design. The film’s construction is rough and shot with bare-bones economy, but a romantic suffusion here sees the director’s artistic returns in good measure. Harris Jr.’s comically skewed rendering of Street Jr.’s life seems to unhinge the alignment between depiction and truth. (The real-life Street Jr. was reportedly unhappy with the finished film.) Still, he renders a life with so much style that his creative subjectivities are easy to accept.
Chameleon Street has a finger on the throbbing pulse of shifting cultures that sees the youth it demarcates through the movements of punk, new wave, and hip-hop. Meanwhile, the synapsing edits that frame these cultures keep the story flashing by at an agreeable pace. With limited resources on hand for an independent film, Harris Jr. masters an almost baroque structure of storytelling. Scenes like William attending a masquerade party (during a stretch when he’s impersonating a French-speaking college student) hold a great deal of metafilmic wealth and generate Chameleon Street’s overall atmospheric motif. It’s an air that hangs over the story with so much lavish portent that one must truly appreciate the perfected minimalism that Harris Jr. achieves with just a few judicious turns in the screenwriting.
Because Chameleon Street is a story of a Black man’s negotiation and navigation through predominantly white working environments, the political reflections ride the story with the alternating approaches of understatement and embroidery. Delivered with a certain hyperrealism that examines its antihero’s headspace, Harris Jr. manages some sharp commentary on the gulf between races in the workforce. A scene in which William, now a lawyer, is seated at a five-star restaurant with fellow lawyers who are white and lets loose a few choice thoughts on their racial insensitivities is especially biting in its truth and sobering in its humor.
Performances are varied. Harris Jr., playing the lead, manages a fairly magnetic (if sometimes one-note) portrayal of William and gets by on the baritone charm of his delivery and his slyly mischievous swagger. How much he intended to play up the story for laughs is uncertain; so much of Chameleon Street is lost in the self-sustaining mystique of its true-to-life character that the enigma of William Douglas Street Jr. seems to obfuscate everything within Harris Jr.’s lens. The other actors are serviceable in their parts but often cannot generate meaningful currents between one another due to their obvious inexperience. As the director, Harris Jr. does a wonderful job of getting as much mileage as he can with the little that he has and the entire project gains traction on his ingenuity and percipience alone.
Chameleon Street has, for the last 34 years of its existence, been a slippery film, often eluding distributors through a series of bad deals and fallouts in Harris Jr.’s attempt to market it to a wider audience. It took a year before it found distribution, despite an auspicious Grand Prize Jury win at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. Chameleon Street had a number of supporters upon its initial release, including Spike Lee, who had been in talks with Harris Jr. to remake the film until the deal fell through when Harris Jr. asked for final edit rights.
Arbelos Films is the lucky distributor to deliver this inventive piece of cinema to the masses. An improvement by leaps and bounds over an inferior DVD release by Image Entertainment in 2007, Arbelos’ Blu-ray edition does a fantastic job of the film’s restoration. The transfer is sharp and clear (a 4K restoration from the 35mm print), and the colors have a nice verve to them, keeping the images fresh and alive. Sound and dialogue are clear, only showing minor dips in quality due to the source limitations of the low-budget filming.
Arbelos has also packaged this release with an exceptional number of supplements, including two audio commentaries from the cast and crew, a series of archival interviews and features on the making of the film, and, most interesting, an archival interview with the real-life William Douglas Street Jr., conducted by Harris Jr. when he was researching material for the film. A booklet featuring an interview with Harris Jr. rounds out the package, and the fetching Blu-ray artwork cleverly re-imagines Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat” for the film.
Much like Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), Chameleon Street is not so much a biopic as a re-imagining of someone’s life. The artistic license that Harris Jr. has taken ensures a work that, with punkish and instinctive engendering, is every bit as fresh and forward-thinking as it was more than 30 years ago. While Chameleon Street is built from the rough and ramshackle materials afforded by its independent budget, the dissenting artistry with which Harris Jr. creates pushes it far beyond its limits.