Never heard of it? Neither have most people. It won Best Dramatic Film at Sundance in 1990, and then largely vanished, along with writer/director/star Wendell B. Harris. Next to no release, next to no video availability, but it's on DVD, and if you've got Netflix you should put it in your queue. Because it's a hell of a flick.
CHAMELEON STREET is a biopic of the pretender William Douglas Street, a social chameleon who put himself into situations that he was woefully unqualified for, but turned out to be fairly good at. In the film, which conflates some stories from Street's life with some from another man sharing his unusual talent, Street successfully masquerades as a journalist, surgeon, attorney, and -- in one of the funniest scenes -- an exchange student from Francophone Africa, which he carries off despite *not knowing French.* Street is aided and abetted in his pretenses by societal convention, and so only fails in his masquerades because of outside forces, even happenstance, simply tripping him up, or, when it is his fault, because his laziness results in his failure to prepare on a basic level. (See: not knowing French.) The irony, of course, is that the society Street aspires to is basically lazy in a similar way, and that's just what leads so many people to believe him in the first place.
The movie is far from perfect. CHAMELEON STREET has the defects of the first-time filmmaker: some scenes don't quite work, some scenes don't fit in, some scenes run too long, and some scenes just drag. But it's an audacious effort, and because of that audacity its flaws don't ruin its brilliance. Unlike a lot of movies, CHAMELEON STREET is about something. It's not just a story of a man, as the movie isn't just about Street. It's a film about black ambition, and society's interactions with it. More specifically, it's about *frustrated* black ambition, and about wanting more but not knowing how to get it -- but it doesn't come off as stacked you might think, because Street's efforts to cheat society come off as clumsily as they do brilliantly. It's a movie about wanting more but not knowing how to get it at the same time as it is a movie about wanting more but not being willing to do the work to get it and a movie about wanting more but finding out nothing you do to get it makes a damn bit of difference. There is not a simplistic moral to it, but it'll make you think.
The scenes that do work are terrific. Consider a jailhouse conversation:
STREET (VO). Eugene and I both shared a mutual admiration for Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. So we'd get together and trade comics, talk comics, remember comics. In fact, Eugene was in Jackson because of comics. He beat on his mother until she died because -- well, let him tell it. EUGENE So when I get home and go up to my room, I say, 'Mom, what hath become of my comic books?' -- I used to always talk like Thor. STREET Yeah? EUGENE Yeah. STREET You used to always talk like Thor, huh? EUGENE Yeah, I patterned my speech after him. Sometimes I talked like Spiderman, or Daredevil, or Nick Fury. Or the Hulk! (beat) ...'course, the Hulk really didn't have too much to say. STREET No, not really.
In another scene, Street and his wife Gabrielle are in a restaurant/bar when they're confronted by a drunken bigot. This scene could easily go over the top, particularly in the beginning, but Harris's performance is mesmerizing: he underplays his initial reaction, just wanting to keep things quiet, so when he does go off, ala Cyrano de Bergerac, it's remarkable. One interesting thing that didn't occur to me until I was writing this up: the drunken bigot condescends to Street not just because Street is black and the drunken bigot is a drunken bigot, but perhaps because the bigot honestly believes, as his actions imply, that Street is a pimp and Gabrielle is available, and so by the bigot's dim lights he must condescend to his black procurer so as not to lose face. If so, that's a fabulous irony: Street, who leads other people to mistake him for things Street's not in order to gain respect, admiration, and a sense of escape, becomes trapped in an unpleasant situation with his wife where he's detested and condescended to *because* the drunken bigot has mistaken Street for something Street's not.
Here's how that scene plays out:
DRUNKEN BIGOT Don't you know Michelob is for white men? Don't you know the white man runs this world? STREET (re: beer) Is that what it says on the label? The drunk pulls out his own wallet and starts rummaging through bills. DRUNKEN BIGOT How much? STREET How much what? DRUNKEN BIGOT "How much what?" C'mon, cut the comedy! Bitch is fine! And I'm willing to pay through the nose when the ass has got class! -- c'mon, take a drink, honey -- know what I mean, porch monkey? STREET (smoothly) You did say "more funky." (to Gabrielle) That is what he said, isn't it? "More funky." Not "porch monkey," "more funky -- " (grasping drunk's arm) Hey, hey, hey, why don't you get around, okay? Are you crazy? DRUNKEN BIGOT Nigger, get your nasty black hands offa me! Street, confident he's in control, doesn't. He's smiling, shaking his head. STREET (to Gabrielle) He thinks he can just come in here and -- DRUNKEN BIGOT Fuckin' let go! He throws his drink in Street's face. Gabrielle wipes Street's face. Street is relaxed, calm. Pats the last bit of his face dry, then addresses the drunk, calmly. STREET You know, that's a really nasty word. But what's really -- pardon the expression -- fucked up is your grammar. "Fuckin' let go" -- you can't say that. You know, the rules of grammar apply to profanity as well. The word "fuck" comes from the German root "fichen," which means -- "to strike." Street's up on his feet now, fast. The bigot flinches, expecting a blow; but Street just smooths his own hair. STREET (continuing) It's a verb and can be used in a variety of ways, both transitive and intransitive. For example, simple aggression: "Fuck you!" Or simple confusion: "What the fuck is goin' on here?" Then there's apathy: "Who gives a fuuuuuck." Then there's ignorance - which is very appropriate for you -- "Duhhh... fuck do I know?" The bartender leans over to the waitress. BARTENDER Ardie -- go call the police. DRUNKEN BIGOT I can handle this asshole! STREET Yeah, yeah, sure. Defiance: the fuck you can! DRUNKEN BIGOT I don't hafta take this shit from you! STREET Authority: Shut the fuck up! And you can say it four different ways: SHUT the fuck up; shut THE fuck up; shut the FUCK up; shut the fuck UP! You see, these are all the things you could have said if you weren't so unbelievably coarse and crude and countrified -- (to Gabrielle) -- that's alliteration, babe -- (back to bigot) I mean, remember, peckerwood, profanity is the last refuge of the ignorant, the insensitive and the illiterate, but if you're gonna use it -- and I can see you are -- at least get the fuckin' grammar right, moron!
The drunken bigot then hauls off and beats the crap out of him.
Hollywood was interested in the movie only for its remake potential -- they saw the brilliance, but the flaws were too many for them. Harris told 'em to get around. He did a little bit of work, but mostly dropped out of sight. He has another (as yet unreleased) movie. Apparently, it's a science fiction flick, about aliens, more than ten years in the making. I'll be interested to see it.
CHAMELEON STREET is pretty far from perfect, but the ideas and themes at its core are interesting, and the movie challenges the viewer in a way that's intriguing and refreshing, even though it doesn't entirely succeed. The film's portrayal of Street lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Street doesn't come off particularly well in many of them, and the subject himself was displeased with the film. Street is a black man frustrated by the way white/upper-class society attracts and infuriates him, and by the way it accepts him only in those brief periods when he pretends to be something he's not; he's also a clever but lazy would-be intellectual, and the racial dynamic and the moral one complement each other in interesting ways. I think each gives life to the other, and serve to illuminate aspects of Street's character, in ways sympathetic and not, as well as the themes of the film.
Really, it's a very interesting movie, and I strongly recommend it. I have seen movies that tried and failed; I haven't seen a lot of movies that, even when they fail, still manage by their failures to make you think.