To be 100% honest, I had given up on Wendell B. Harris, Jr.'s Chameleon Street ever showing up on DVD. This was one of those films that topped my list of must-have titles when I began replacing my VHS collection with discs nearly ten years ago, but there was no sign it was ever going to come out, especially considering how few people actually know about it. But now that Chameleon Street has finally been released on DVD the opportunity exists for the film to be re-discovered in a way that will see it finally getting the credit it so richly deserves. And if there ever was a film that richly deserved being "discovered," it would have to be Chameleon Street, a hilarious, poignant and near-brilliant character study that offers insight into race relations and human nature in a way that has not been done in quite the same manner either before or since.
Harris wrote, produced, directed and stars in this unconventional mix of humor and drama as William Douglas Street, a real-life conman from Michigan who earned legendary status for his elaborate scams. At various points in his career, Street pretended to be a lawyer, a journalist and a doctor--he even performed surgery--all in the attempt to find some sort of financial success. But as presented by Harris, Street is not so much a conman looking to get paid, as he is a body always in search of a new identity to define himself. Harris plays Street as a smug opportunist who is more often than not, the smartest person in the room. At times, it seems like Street's elaborate ruses are meant more as challenges for himself, than for those around him. It's not so much if he can fool other people as it is whether or not he can successfully become whatever it is he has set out to become. This makes for a far more fascinating and complex character than a typical, greedy conman.
There is very little conventional about Chameleon Street as the film moves in a non-linear, often choppy, and at times confusing manner, with Street narrating as if he is in the room with the audience. Characters are introduced, and it can be hard to remember if Harris has already brought them in to the story, or if he is just dropping them into the narrative without explanation. In any other film, that might a detriment, but Harris makes it work in Chameleon Street, and it becomes almost a tool of deception like those used by Street himself. And whatever pitfalls the film may have--which include some of the obvious stumbling blocks of low-budget films with limited resources--Harris' film is a triumph. His script is nothing short of brilliant, with some truly inspired moments of dialog. In one of the film's best scenes, a white racist calls Street a "porch monkey," to which he responds, "You did say more funky? That is what he said, isn't it, more funky? Not porch monkey. More funky?" The confrontation builds with the intellectually superior Street verbally assaulting the racist, only to get his ass kicked. While in prison, Street finds himself about to be turned into the wife of another prisoner, an experience he describes to the audience by telling them, "I could smell his genitalia as it wafted across the cell." But as with most of the dire circumstances he finds himself in, Street is able to pretend to be something--in this case, crazy--that helps him to escape his fate. And if any of this sounds remotely familiar, it is because at its best moments, Chameleon Street channels both the humor, rage and observational dexterity of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Harris manages to deliver the sort of film that aside from his concert movies, Pryor never seemed to be able to make--one that refuses to dull the sharp edges of humor in favor of finding a wider audience.
After premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 1989, Chameleon Street went on to play at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, the same award given to sex, lies and videotape the year before. This was when Sundance was just beginning to really make a name for itself, and a new wave of independent American cinema was emerging that was finding more of an audience in the mainstream. Filmmakers like Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch had helped lay down the groundwork for this new wave of Sundance/Miramax indie films of the 1980s and 90, which helped launch the careers of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Reginald Hudlin and Kevin Smith to name a few. But while those filmmakers and their debut features have become fixtures of the independent cinema landscape, Wendell Harris and Chameleon Street somehow managed to slip through the cracks.
The story as I heard it was that Harris was offered a deal for the rights to Chameleon Street, so that it could be remade with a white actor in the lead role. Supposedly, it was felt that a mainstream audience would not believe that a black man could successfully pull off scams that had him pretending to be things like a doctor or a lawyer. Whether or not this is true, I can't say (but it does not sound all that absurd to me). Whatever the reason or reasons may be, Chameleon Street became one of those films that was never given the opportunity to shine like it deserved. But now the opportunity for the film to be seen and appreciated is finally here. And even though it is nearly twenty years old, Harris' movie has aged exceptionally well, and perhaps now it can finally be recognized as the important work of cinema it is.
Chameleon Street is presented in in 1.85:1 widescreen and is enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The picture has been mastered from a print that has been restored, and for the most part it looks very good. There are a few moments where the print source appears to have sustained wear and tear that was not completely repaired, but it is minor and may not even be noticeable to some people. The image quality is a vast improvement over the poor transfer of on the VHS version released in the early 1990s. There appears to be some hesitation at the end of certain chapters that causes the disc to appear to freeze, but this only happened twice. Still, it is a noticeable problem (one that may only occur on certain players).
Chameleon Street is presented in Dolby Digital stereo. The sound mix is very good, and the audio clarity is surprising. The sound on the VHS was terrible, and I assumed that the sound would be less than exceptional, but the mix is clean, with consistent levels throughout.
There are quite a few bonus features to be found on this DVD, but none to get that excited about. The Process (25 min.) is a documentary that takes a behind the scenes look at the making of Chameleon Street, as well as some of Harris' experiences at film festivals. The highpoint of the featurette are the deleted scenes and outtakes, which includes some choice material between Street and his prison cellmate discussing comic books (one of the film's best moments). So, You Know Leadbelly (6 min.) is a funny bit of footage featuring co-stars Tony Ennis and Maurice Givens as they get into character in preparation to film Chameleon Street. Collette Vignette (4 min.) is a video collage of another co-star, speaking about all things that must have seemed very important to her back in 1987. A series of eight clips from something called Arbiter Roswell (each running anywhere from one minute to over five minutes) offers a glimpse at what I an only assume is Wendell Harris' new film. Film critic Armond White provides liner notes, as well as an audio commentary with filmmaker Michael Reiter. Honestly, I stopped listening to their commentary after about 20 minutes because neither had said anything to engage me. Perhaps at some point further into the movie that may have discussed what happened to Chameleon Street and why it slipped through the cracks, or more important, maybe they talked about Harris, and what he has been doing for the better part of two decades. But if they did, I never heard it. The only thing more disappointing than the commentary is the lack of participation by Wendell Harris. Without his direct participation in this long-awaited DVD release, most of the bonus material is little more that a superfluous waste of time.
Disappointing bonus material not withstanding, Chameleon Street is a great film that stands as a shining example of creative and thought-provoking independent cinema. The fact that it is a black film adds to the film's significance, making it one of the best independently produced black films of all time. As an all-around artist who acts, writes and directs, Wendell Harris, Jr. has crafted an amazingly funny and provocative film that must be seen.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]