Chameleon Street is poignant black film without the gimmick
By Omar Green
If you are of the noxious notion that every film produced by a contemporary African-American filmmaker must center around hip-hop, guns, hoods, drugs, gold chains, and young, smart-assed, gang-bangers trying to get ahead in the projects, then you are due for a rather pleasant attitude adjustment. The black experience is much larger than presented in the works of John Singleton, Matty Rich, Mario Van Peebles, or the incorrigible Spike Lee. So take your under-exposed self down to the Coolidge Corner Theater and see Chameleon Street!
This film, the debut project of Wendell B. Harris Jr., is a schematic study of the escapades of the infamous Douglas Street, an impersonator of the highest order who used his “gifts” to run con games on the unsuspecting public. No, this is not another Eddie Murphy, hilarious-black-man-berates-stupid-white-society rip-off. There really is a Douglas Street. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, he played the roles of a surgeon, civil rights lawyer, Yale coed, and Time magazine reporter for the sake of getting at the big money. Street is now serving time in a federal prison after being turned in by his wife.
The film’s Douglas Street (Harris) is an unsuccessful but happily married man who installs security systems for his father’s company. He spends his days sitting in the company truck, arguing with his fellow installers, smoking, and listening to his headphones. Actually, the cigarettes and headphones are the only aspects of Street’s physical appearance that remain constant throughout the movie. Unsatisfied with his life and prodded by his wife to finally earn some real money, Street hatches an absolutely ludicrous plan to extort money from baseball player Willie Horton. This plan fails miserably, but gives Street the impetus to begin running high-stakes con games by lying about his profession.
The riskiest and most entertaining of these confidence games occurs about halfway through the film, as Street poses as an intern at a local hospital. Portraying a Harvard Medical School graduate, he plays the pretentious Harvard alumnus to a tee. Street even goes so far as to perform a hysterectomy during his tenure at the hospital, using only the Physician’s Desk Reference he keeps tucked in his pants as a guide. The charade ends only after a routine background check by the hospital reveals him to be a fraud. He is speedily prosecuted and sent directly to jail. But even his imprisonment affords him the need to become something he isn’t as he feigns an epileptic seizure to prevent being raped by a fellow inmate.
The remainder of the plot is best left untold; it’s what Wendell Harris does with the plot that is truly entertaining. Through superb screenwriting and editing techniques taken right out of art school, Harris portrays the dangers of attempts by African-Americans to achieve the white American bourgeois dream, with the story of Douglas Street as a backdrop.
As Street, Harris takes on each of the identities imposed on him by his white counterpart, but in the interim slowly loses himself and his relationship with his wife. In one scene, he begins playing the role of the enraged intellectual and wildly insults a drunk white man who has asked him to pimp his wife. He scolds the man for improperly using the word “f**k” and teaches him all the appropriate definitions and articulations of the word as if by rote, all the while endangering the safety of his wife. The scene ends with Street getting beat up, but Harris has made his point by that time — the drunk came to insult a black man he perceived to be his superior, and Street, as the black-icon objectified, becomes what he believes is the only appearance that the drunk is capable of dealing with. Despite Street’s fondness for Bauhaus tee-shirts and Cocteau movies, he is anything but intellectual.
Harris further enhances his theme by visually undercutting some of the narrative portions of the film with strikingly simple visual images that occur in repeated groupings. In addition, Harris uses his astonishingly resonant and rich voice for a sparse and disjointed narration by the main character. While these filmmaking techniques are unorthodox by Hollywood feature film standards, they add to the richness of the film and will probably earn Harris some recognition as “the next Spike Lee.” But Harris’ debut is stronger by far than his contemporary’s, in that Harris never tries to psychologize Street (as Lee did with Nola in She’s Gotta Have It), and in fact, pokes fun at anyone who may attempt to do so through two scenes at the beginning and end of the film. (But I’ll save these for those of you who are brave enough to spend the $6.50.)
I suppose that the best way to describe this film is as good, but not perfect, because of a tendency to drag on a little at the three-quarter mark. It is a brilliant debut by a young filmmaker and deserves all the praise Wendell Harris’ head can handle. I only hope his next work will be this interesting.