Film of the Week: Chameleon Street

Here’s a movie released thirty years ago that still puts its like-minded contemporaries to shame: Wendall B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street (1989). Taking the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, Chameleon Street seemed to be apocryphal for Black-American independent filmmaking, but history and those who control it would have otherwise. As Harris Jr. explains himself, Chameleon Street was removed from public broadcasting effectively erasing it from film history. Of course, the film was kept alive by programmers and critics, but it wasn’t until eighteen years after its debut, that in 2007 Home Vision and Image Entertainment would release a DVD to wider audiences. In that same essay linked above, Harris Jr. also speaks of the tireless amount of time spent explaining racism to white people. Similarly, I’ve also spent copious amounts of time explaining to white people why I find a film, such as Green Book (2019), pandering and offensive. I’m attracted to Chameleon Street because of its punk-minded attitude. No coincidence, then, that Harris Jr. is a Michigan native, like the god-fathers of punk, Death and Iggy Pop. Ultimately, Chameleon Street makes no concessions. So, what is the film about? Based on the true-story of Black con-artist William Douglas Street, Chameleon Street follows Harris Jr. in the titular role, impersonating reporters, lawyers, surgeons and more. Harris Jr. plays the role with a shape-shifting quality, successfully camouflaging himself amongst different groups to comedic effect. At one point, while posing as a Yale student, he infiltrates a French club and delivers a nonsensical monologue in poor French. The students are left impressed. It’s not the words that matter, here, but Harris Jr.’s performance as an actor, who infuses his gestures and inflections with beguiling intelligence. Chameleon Street’s energy feels both American and French, combining the cool intellectualism of Sartre and Godard with the biting reality of Richard Wright.

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