Perhaps Chameleon Street is most notorious for being a runaway success at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, winning top prize, and then seemingly falling off the face of the earth, along with its director, Wendell Harris Jr. The film is based on true events, centering around infamous entrepreneur/conman Douglass Street Jr., who from 1971-85 impersonated a wide spectrum of people and professions in order to make a buck. The way the story is shot and told–fast-paced narration, filmed fake television broadcasts, etc.–still feels fresh and DIY today, unlike more polished indie films of that era that strove to mimic Hollywood production styles. Wendell Harris Jr., who started the project in 1985 after reading an article on Street in the Detroit Free Press two years prior, wrote, directed, and stars in the film, with the entire work narrated and told from Street’s perspective. Realizing that all this country cares about is money, Street sets out to get it with his greatest asset: deception. Along the way, he tends to blame the women in his life (mainly Angela Leslie, as wife Gabriella) for bringing him down and not understanding and supporting his true conning genius, a tired patriarchal trope that Harris said Street talked about at length in his letters and during prison interviews. According to Harris, these letters and interviews form the nucleus of his portrayal. In video interviews, Harris said he’d wanted to direct but not star, or maybe it was star but not direct. Either way, he ended up doing all of it, plus writing, out of necessity and lack of money. On rewatching it recently for the first time since 1992, there is a lot that is dated obviously, but much of it holds up. Harris does an excellent job portraying Street just as he presented himself, which is a brilliant deceiver, and also a smug, misogynistic prick. Still, the code-switching explosion might be the funniest few seconds in the movie.
Chameleon Street was part of a resurgence in black independent filmmaking that started at the tail end of the 1980s, with Julie Dash’s Daughters in the Dust and Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn being two of its outstanding peers. The movement probably peaked with Deep Cover, Malcolm X, and Menace 2 Society, in 1992-93. Alongside this creative explosion was a reassessment of 1970s blaxploitation films, which up until then were typically viewed through a negative lens by critics like Stanley Crouch, who saw them as reinforcing negative stereotypes about black people as pimps, sex workers, and criminals. Also important was the insulting gesture of plantation throwback Driving Miss Daisy winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1990, while they failed to even nominate Do the Right Thing. It was an industry fuck-you to the black film community and meant to codify their place as cultural chauffeurs. Public Enemy answered appropriately with “Burn Hollywood Burn”.
Reading up on what happened to Harris after the film won Sundance is sad but enlightening. He thought he’d made it, that offers for distribution would arrive, that he could reimburse his parents for the life savings they’d invested. Instead, Warner Brothers bought the rights to a remake (not a sequel) for $250,000 and then canned it. Amazingly, they refused to distribute Chameleon Street at all. No other studios would either. Compare that to the lavish treatment lauded upon the previous year’s Sundance (white) winner Steven Soderberg, for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. After the suppression of his film, Harris says he wasted three years of his life pitching unpopular ideas in Hollywood to disinterested corporate hacks:
“I would go to people, and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a satirical comedy called Negropolis. It takes place in ancient Rome, except that black people are the upper class, including the Emperors and the ruling class. All the slaves are white.’ I would pitch that, and they would look at me like I had defecated on their carpet. . . . When you actually know that the house is stacked against you, then you don’t really bother going into the house, if you have any sense.”