Friday, February 11, 2011

CHAMELEON STREET


There's cult status and then there's obscurity. Wendall B Harris' award winning film Chameleon Street - the amazing true story about Detroit conman William Douglass Street - seems to teeter between both categories. On one hand, the movie maintains its cult status through screenings at arthouse & independent theaters all over the world. In the last year alone, the Brooklyn academy of music has single handily kept this movie alive in New York City. The film is also very popular among the non-fickle, non-tyler perry black film community as well. Chameleon Street also gained a newer, younger audience ("the hip-hop generation") due to Blackstar (mos def & talib kweli) sampling a famous scene from the film on their debut album.
But Chameleon Street is slowly slipping in to obscurity as the DVD is now out of print (but there are some used DVD's in circulation). And what makes the film's legacy even more obscure is that Wendall B. Harris has yet to direct another film thus making him more "irrelevant" & less "fresh" in the world of cinema. It's very suspect that a Black director who wins the jury prize at Sundance never had the opportunity to make another film in over 20 years. Were his ideas too unconventional & challenging? Was his attitude too independent? Has he been blacklisted by the movie industry? Does he have an ego that makes him difficult to deal with. His career as a director seems to mirror that of of Alex Cox who once had a promising start with Repoman & Sid & Nancy, but because of his independent/D.I.Y. attitude, he can't seem to get a film financed to save his life these days (and when he does its...Repo Girl). But at least Alex Cox was given numerous opportunities to fail. Harris never got a single opportunity to fail. You can call Black people sensitive & paranoid when it comes to race & racism but when you take the career of Wendall B Harris - you have to agree there is at least a case for some possible funny business on the racial side of things...

On a sidenote - 1989 was an amazing year for independent film. Even though it marked the year of John Cassavetes's death (which was a major blow to American independent film), indie film still brought us; Drugstore Cowboy, Mystery Train, Unbelievable Truth, Do The Right Thing& Sex Lies & Videotape, which are not only some of the best movies of the 80's, but they also ushered in the 90's American independent movie renascence. Most of the directors, actors & writers associated with the aforementioned films went on to some form of greatness while Chameleon Street and its director faded away in to semi-obscurity. In fact, Harris' peer; Steven Soderbergh seems to be the only person to keep his name alive (Soderbergh cast him in Out of Sight)...

Harris' cameo in Soderbergh's Out Of Sight
Steven Soderbergh has been an advocate for underrated/underappreciated Black filmmaker for years...
Bill Duke's cameo in The Limey
Soderbergh helped get the word out on Killer Of Sheep


Harris also had an unexpected cameo in Road Trip which I still find strange because I know the target audience for that movie had no idea who Harris is or how important he is in the world of indie/Black film...


The legacy of Chameleon Street is becoming so forgotten (by certain specific so-called important movie publications) that it isn't even acknowledged as being one of the most important films in the "modern black film canon" (Slate recently published a list of the 50 most important Black films and they not only excluded Chameleon Street - probably the most important film that should be on that list - but other challenging films like Side Walk Stories, Black Venus, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm and countless others). It goes without saying that Chameleon Street is one of a kind and challenging (we'll get in to why towards the end of this write-up) but, in my opinion, influence goes a long way as well. Influencing other arts solidifies your importance on some level and it implies longevity because a piece of your work has rubbed off on future films...

Will Smith referenced the rubix cube scene from Chameleon Street (L) in The Pursuit Of Happiness (R)
Mos Def & Talib Kweli's sampling of one of Chameleon Street's most famous scenes...



Chameleon Street also references older important (BLACK) films that came before it (this is important because it makes Chameleon Street an abstract/subconscious lightweight history lesson in modern Black cinema)...

Chameleon Street/Black Girl
Chameleon Street/Black Girl
Addressing the camera directly: Chameleon Street/She's Gotta Have It

In Chameleon Street Wendall B Harris plays conman William Douglass Street. Street managed to successfully portray a doctor, lawyer, sports journalist and he even took the identity of a Yale student. Imagine Catch Me If You Can but only better. Chameleon Street is slightly more original than the average biography/biopic because the film was made in such a non-traditional way (it's both gritty and dreamlike/slightly off-kiltered at the same time). Harris touches on everything from racism & class to depression & identity (specifically within Black males, which is something that's pretty rare).
The lead performance, the writing & the overall atmosphere (which is an almost indescribable combination of eeriness and dark humor with creepy voice over narration) makes it stand out among so many other movies concerning the complexities of race.



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