In a late scene in Chameleon Street, Wendell B. Harris, Jr.’s 1990 film, an astonishingly brilliant and wickedly comedic interrogation of American racism’s corrosive effects on those forced to navigate its nearly impossible psychic and societal demands, the film’s protagonist and antihero Douglas Street (played by writer/director Harris) is being harangued by his daughter, who wants him to buy her new toys. In response, Douglas grabs a doll, sprays it with black paint, and tosses it at his daughter, saying, “There. New toy. Black Barbie.” In another scene occurring much earlier in the film, Douglas and his wife are out having dinner when they are accosted by a drunk white racist, who calls Douglas a “porch monkey” and proposes buying his wife’s sexual favors. Douglas stands up to this racist, criticizing him for his poor usage of the word “fuck” and proceeding to lecture him on the etymology of the word and the proper ways to employ it. Douglas gets punched in the face and knocked unconscious for his efforts to educate this man, but he has successfully demonstrated his intellectual superiority to his antagonist.
These two scenes are indicative of Harris’ absurdist approach to his subject matter, positing racism as a sick, cruel joke on its victims, who must come up with ever more wily and extreme ways to counteract and survive it. Harris based his film on the exploits of the real-life Douglas Street, a con man he’d read about in a newspaper article years earlier. The film depicts Street’s successive impersonations and con games he perpetrates on others; in a voiceover that intermittently pops up throughout the film, Douglas expresses his personal philosophy: “I scam, therefore I am.” He poses as a freelance journalist, a doctor, a graduate student, and a lawyer before he is finally caught and jailed, turned in to the police by his own wife.
Harris’ complex and mesmerizing work achieves its effects through intricately executed metafictional layers: it’s a film by an actor-director that’s largely about performance, inspired by Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man as well as W. E. B. Du Bois’ writings about the double consciousness that Black people must often possess to survive in America, hiding their true selves behind a façade more acceptable to the larger white society, much of which harbors negative attitudes and stereotypes about Black people. To this end, Harris pointedly employs a burlesque comedy approach, resulting in an unclassifiable film that shapeshifts almost scene by scene. Much of the comedy derives from the way Douglas Street grasps the big picture of his con games, but gets tripped up by small details. For example, his act of falsely posing as a Time magazine journalist is exposed when someone notices that in his editorial pitch letter, he misspells the word “write” as “wright.” Other times, the comedy travels into queasy and disturbing territory; in one particularly stomach-churning scene, Douglas, while posing as a doctor, actually operates on a patient, cutting open a woman with no training or experience, getting his information from a medical reference book he consults beforehand in the bathroom. Astonishingly, the operation is successful; in real life, Street reportedly performed 36 hysterectomies before he was caught.
Chameleon Street won the Grand Jury prize at the 1990 Sundance film festival; this award has helped to launch many successful careers, for example Steven Soderbergh with his win just the year before for sex, lies, and videotape. Unfortunately, the win didn’t do the same for Harris, whose film, despite its considerable critical acclaim, got just a small, barely-there release in 1991, and was basically forgotten afterward. To date, Chameleon Street is Harris’ only completed feature film, though he’s spent many years trying to get follow-up projects off the ground. In fact, Harris believes that Chameleon Street was not just rejected by movie studios, but actively suppressed. In his interviews — which are often as fascinating as the film they discuss — Harris cites the fact that Warner Brothers paid $250,000 for the rights to remake it with more bankable actors, such as Will Smith and Wesley Snipes, but refused to release the original film.
But as they say, better late than never. Arbelos Films has now made available a 4K restoration of Chameleon Street, and will finally give this film — which still feels ahead of its time a full 30 years later — the proper release it so richly deserves. We can now celebrate the occasion of this great film’s belated rediscovery, as well as mourn the fruitful career that could have been for its immensely talented director.
Published as part of NYFF 2021 — Dispatch 5.