Certain movies get put into categories like classic, cult classic, or respectfully obscure. Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury prize in 1990, straddles all three. Harris, who wrote, directed, and starred in the inspired-by-actual-events tale of William Douglas Street, a smooth-talking grifter who conned his way into impersonating a journalist, a lawyer, a student, and a surgeon (even performing operations, queasily shown in the film), is fine with most labels with the exception of one: art house.
As Harris explains it, art house “immediately translates in my mind as no money.”
Predating the early-’90s explosion of Black filmmakers in mainstream cinema—led by Spike Lee, John Singleton, Julie Dash, and others—Chameleon Streetfeatured a protagonist who wasn’t your typical “good guy” or “bad guy.” He was incredibly complicated, which may have contributed to distributors not knowing how to market the film in an era when studios were used to mostly moral Black leading men like Eddie Murphy or pre–Training Day Denzel Washington. Chameleon Street was unlike anything else, a true example of something being so ahead of its time that people didn’t know what to do with it.
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These days, Harris, 67, is hoping his masterful first feature film (it’s also his only one) will find a new audience with a 4K remastering by Los Angeles–based Arbelos Films. (The film screens Saturday, November 13, at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.) After decades in turnaround with only a few small but indelible acting roles to show for it, Harris lives in Flint, Michigan, doing interviews for the first time in years.
“I find myself walking around the house and I’ll suddenly notice that I’m kind of smiling,” he says. “You know, that has never happened before. What is happening now is like Niagara Falls compared to, you know, a dribble coming out of a spigot for 30 years.”
One reason for that drought may have been the difficulty viewers had actually seeing Chameleon Street. Despite that Sundance award and positive reviews from the likes of Elvis Mitchell, who praised the film’s “cagey unpredictable power,” Harris’s feature wasn’t the easiest film to find throughout the ’90s and early aughts. At various points in the past 30 years, there were plans to remake Chameleon Street, with names like Sinbad, Arsenio Hall, Will Smith, and Wesley Snipes floated as replacements for Harris, yet the original and its director have more or less fallen into obscurity.
Harris’s relationship to the major studios may explain some of this. As a noncommercial and challenging-to-categorize Black filmmaker, Harris seems to get framed by the industry as difficult. While his contemporary Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape earned the Sundance Audience Award for Drama the year before Chameleon Street’s Jury prize) has enjoyed critical and commercial success, Harris finds himself on the periphery.
Even back in the scrappy era of indie films, Harris’s do-everything-himself approach didn’t lead to the label “indie maverick” that has attached to Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles. Instead, Harris was blackballed, his film buried.
It probably didn’t help that Chameleon Street was explicitly about the traps racism sets for a smart, ambitious Black man. Racial stereotypes and the expectations placed on Black people are at the center of the story highlighted in the famous dinner-date scene where an overbearing white man with a fetish for Black women tries to proposition Street’s wife. (While mostly about men, the film does lightly touch on the microaggressions faced by Black women, but it focuses mostly on the Black male perspective.)
Another obstacle Chameleon faced in the early 1990s: its cast was almost entirely Black, a box office death sentence in the decades before the industry’s awakening to the reality of race. (See: White, Oscars So.)
I always assumed race was a factor in Harris’s being blackballed, and when I asked him about this, he agreed. “You’re talking reality, homie. You know, the sad fact is, if everybody in Chameleon Street had been white, it never would have been any of this problem. You know, the film would have had the same kind of release Weekend at Bernie’s got.”
Even a few broadcasts on cable television—the place many indie movies found an audience pre-streaming—would’ve made a huge difference. “One screening on television in all four regions of the United States,” Harris laments. “One screening would surpass 30 years of going to film festivals.”
And yet, despite its relative absence from the culture, Chameleon Street has been seriously influential. Its dialogue was sampled by hip-hop artists like Black Star, its scenes echoed in everything from Will Smith in the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can.
In fact, Catch Me If You Can is essentially the cinematic doppelgänger of Chameleon Street—or, since Catch starred Leonardo DiCaprio and was set in an entirely white world, a photo negative of it.
Both films are based on true stories of masterful con men with unresolved “daddy issues” who each at one point masqueraded as doctors and figures at institutions of higher learning. The only difference is that Chameleon’s Street (who is Black) was labeled a criminal and nothing more after he was caught, while Catch’s Frank Abagnale Jr. (who is white ) was seen as a very clever boy and offered a job by the FBI.
Harris claims he never watched Spielberg’s movie in its entirety but acknowledges the similarities. “When Catch Me If You Can came out, I got phone calls from all kinds of people. You know, friends and colleagues and people who knew me. They called me up and said, ‘Hey, man, Spielberg stole your movie!’”
Stopping short of accusing the world’s most famous filmmaker of ripping him off, Harris does say, “You know, I had meetings with the production companies of all the top filmmakers, including Spielberg’s Amblin.”
If you’re lucky enough to own Chameleon Street’s original, out-of-print DVD, you may have seen the only other directorial effort from Harris: an unfinished UFO documentary called Arbiter Roswell. While he hasn’t directed another film, he’s acted in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Todd Phillips’s Road Trip (2000), reminding his fans—myself included—of what a charismatic screen presence he was back in 1990. (Harris’s voice, a mellifluous baritone, is a powerful tool in his arsenal.)
I’ve been trying to keep Harris and Chameleon Street alive through writing, podcasting, and endlessly tweeting about it over the years. As a six-foot-three, 270-plus-pound left-handed Black man with interests ranging from architecture to obscure art who grew up in areas that were both predominantly white and Black, I’ve faced the obstacle of having to shatter dumb stereotypes that never concerned me in the first place. Chameleon Street, which I discovered through classic hip-hop (a culture that partially defines me), is one of the few films in which I truly saw aspects of myself.
My discovery of this film reminds me of a time when you still had to dig to experience obscure art. Finding Chameleon Street felt like an accomplishment, a personal bragging right in the days before everything was a YouTube search away.
The thought of a new generation getting to know Harris through this restoration brings me great joy. After talking with him, it also pleases me to know that after decades of struggle, he feels “extremely excited and gratified” with how Chameleon Street is being received today.
While there may be more platforms for an impossible-to-categorize Black artist in 2021, Harris is still fighting. “The war is still going on, man,” he says. “It’s still a war over content.”•