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Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street
Image / Prismatic
1989 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date , 2007 / 26.99
Starring Wendell B. Harris, Angela Leslie, Paula McGee, Amina Fakir, Richard Kiley,
Cinematography Daniel S. Noga
Original Music Peter S. Moore
Produced by Dan Lawton
Written and Directed by Wendell B. Harris Jr.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Overflowing with talent and intelligence, Chameleon Street is an offbeat comedy and an overlooked gem. Julliard graduate Wendell B. Harris Jr. hits a home run the first time out, writing, directing and acting in a sly tale loosely based on the exploits of a real con man, William Douglas Street. Like an African-American Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Street finds life more exciting when he's assuming a different identity. Functioning as a lawyer, a student and even a surgeon comes easy because Street knows how to adapt himself to the needs of the people he meets, with a polite smile and a proper list of bogus credentials. As he says, quite sincerely, "I think, therefore I scam."

Street is suave, articulate and unflappable: unlike other black heroes, he won't be provoked by racial baiting, even if it means taking a beating. Street rationalizes his dishonesty with the simple fact that his materialistic wife Darlene (Anita Gordon) wants him to bring home money, and he can't do that by walking the straight and narrow.

Street's first aborted rip-off is to extort money from a famous ball player. The scheme is barely underway when Street's partner turns him in for the crime by signing his name to the extortion note. When the player doesn't press charges, Street parlays his instant notoriety into appearances on TV talk shows, where he adroitly sidesteps taking responsibility for his actions. Discovering that people forget very quickly, Street feels free to continue with his con games.

Using a candid voiceover, Harris speeds his unlikely hero through a string of scam adventures. Posing as a Time reporter, Street interviews a prominent female basketball star (Paula McGee, a real athlete). She accepts him at face value until he becomes too cocky and changes the subject to Ms. McGee's orgasms. Moving right along, Street applies for a job at a local hospital, passing himself off as a graduate of Harvard Medical School. The administrator in charge is too impressed to question the claims on Street's resume, and he's soon bluffing his way through daily visits to the ward. He hides his complete incompetence by deferring to technicians and interns, co-workers that appreciate his professional generosity. When finally put to the test, Street performs real surgery, somehow squeaking through. It's an outrageous scene, especially when Street's medical colleagues compliment his 'advanced' technique!

A stint in prison puts Street in the hilarious situation of using his powers of persuasion to ward off the advances of another convict, a sexual predator. Street then tries passing himself off as a French exchange student, despite knowing only a few words in French. He acquires a room and full services at Yale by stealing another student's ID number: "I gotta get another identity quick!" Street has been keeping his wife Darlene in the dark all through these misadventures, supporting her as best he can. At Yale, he romances the beautiful Tatiana (Amina Fakir), who plays along even though she knows he's married. Street feels little or no responsibility for his lies, his made-up identities and his general irresponsibility. As far as he's concerned all society is a rigged sham, and he's just working in his self-interest like everyone else.

At this point we may begin to realize that Street's adventures in creative self-invention apply equally to the filmmaker. Wendell B. Harris Jr. is 'inventing' himself as an accomplished writer-director-actor, and his first effort is an unqualified success. With his self-assured manner and sincere voice, Harris charms us from the start. He's not unlike Orson Welles of F for Fake, enjoying his power as a cinematic hoaxer. William Douglas Street is performing the same kind of balancing act. He makes friends and wins promotions, and his interpersonal skills give him an edge. When posing as an attorney and confronting a cadre of intimidating lawyers, Street comes through like a champ. But a random identity check or a petty betrayal is always there to trip him up.

Harris' direction creates wonders on a low budget. The film never feels confined or cheap and Harris is even able to inject references to classic filmmaking. An impressive costume party scene draws more parallels with Orson Welles. Hoping to win a $10,000 prize, Street arrives elaborately made up as Cocteau's La bête from Beauty and the Beast. The gag supports Harris' vision of Street as a romantic anti-hero, a cultured criminal. But when Street's lover and his wife show up at the same time, the disguise doesn't save him.

Viewers will also be impressed with Wendell B. Harris Jr's smooth and convincing dialogue, which recognizes the difference between small talk and meaningful conversation. In contrast to some minority filmmakers that equate Attitude with moral authority, Harris presents rounded characters. The insolent Street plays the color card to put some white lawyers on the defensive, but he has no illusion that his race entitles him to special treatment. He knows he's guilty as hell, and when he ends up in handcuffs, he just wants to find out where he tripped up.

Although Chameleon Street is consistently funny and inventive, the ending is abrupt and a couple of speeches lack impact  1. There's really nothing like this film -- it's an unexpected anti-Blaxploitation comedy thriller. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance but was not widely distributed. Sadly, Harris has acted in a couple more movies since 1989 (Out of Sight) but hasn't directed any.

Image presents Chameleon Street in a perfect enhanced transfer that flatters the sharp color cinematography of Daniel S. Noga. The extras are worthy of special edition status. Film critic and Harris champion Armond White provides the liner notes and a full commentary with filmmaker Michael Reiter. The trailer turns out to be a disorganized video assembly that looks like a video rough cut. Colette Vignette is a little video that won Harris an award in 1986. Two more extras, The Process and Do You Know Leadbelly? collect camera tests, auditions, taped rehearsals and B&W video tap footage during the shoot. An additional extra is billed as a trailer for something called Arbiter Roswell (mit Dataface) but plays like snippets of an experimental video viewed at random. A final photo gallery includes production stills, continuity Polaroids and studio portraits.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Chameleon Street rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Promo trailer, early Wendell B. Harris, Jr. film, rehearsal, audition and video tap footage.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 26, 2007


1. Street tries to out-talk a racist by attacking his ungrammatical use of profanity in a treatise on the 'F' word's proper use as a noun, verb, adverb, etc. Perhaps Harris invented this joke but we recall hearing it since the 1970s. Harris' cast recites the familiar Orson Welles 'frog and scorpion' story over the end titles. Its inclusion isn't up to the rest of the film's high standard of cleverness.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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