Friday, June 22, 2012


'Chameleon Street'
I know I'm not the first person to bring this up but...How do you go from being a grand jury prize winner at Sundance (during a time when that actually meant something) among a talent pool of directors like; The Coen brothers, Spike Lee, Hal Hartley and Todd Haynes to essentially becoming just a cult figure among snooty Black American film snobs and Steven Soderbergh (probably the only prominent figure in Hollywood that has kept Harris' name relevant)? People make all this fuss about the return of hermit filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Monte Hellman but at least they have more than a few films to show for. All Wendell B. Harris has to show for in 22 years is Chameleon Street (an important film in many circles ranging from hip-hop culture to the cult film world). Sure he's got that cameo in Soderbergh's Out Of Sight as well as in Roadtrip (...???), but as a director he's only got that one movie (which is a classic if I might add). Of all the filmmakers to emerge out of that indie/Sundance scene in late 80's/early 90's, how is it that someone like Wendell B. Harris gets left behind? And I don’t mean to insult the man by using the term "left behind",’s true. And it’s not his fault. How is it that during the mini-explosion of black filmmakers and films in the late 80's/early 90's that Wendell B. Harris was essentially “left out” and not included (similar to Charles Burnett). When you look at that famous New York Times Cover from 1991 on the New Black Cinema movement you notice Harris (and Burnett) are left out. I don’t get it. Not to sound like a child trying to start beef but in my opinion Harris and Burnett are much better filmmakers than more than half the people in the photo below (no offense but its true). I know Black directors like Harris and Charles Burnett have gained notoriety in places like Europe (which is great) but on a certain level their films weren’t really made for them (not to say Europeans can’t enjoy and/or love Chameleon Street, Killer Of Sheep, The Glass Shield, etc), but Americans (especially Black Americans) should be the real demographic to embrace these kinds of films.

Top Row (left to right) - The Hudlin Brothers (House Party), Ernest Dickerson (Juice), Mario Van Peeples (New Jack City), Mid Row (left to right) - Spike Lee (Jungle Fever), Matty Rich (Straight Outta Brooklyn), John Singleton (Boyz N The Hood), Bottom - Charles Lane (True Identity)

Had Hollywood/American Independent cinema reached its quota of Black directors? Was one or two more too much? Here’s something else that strikes me as odd: Similar to film movements like The French New Wave, New German Cinema and even Dogma, the Black American director explosion was about collaboration and/or helping each other out. Melvin Van Peeples (who still continues to direct) essentially passed the torch on to his son, Spike Lee put out Drop Squad and other films made by Black directors through his 40 acres & a mule production company, Ernest Dickerson moved on from being Spike Lee's cinematographer to becoming a director himself and actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Cassie and Sy Richardson made it a point to act in as many movies directed by Black directors as possible. Where was Wendell B Harris' support from the Black film community when he needed it? Hey, maybe hands were extended out to him and he didn’t want the help. I don’t know, Im just asking. Let’s face it…in the realm of "Black cinema" (a label I sometimes embrace and sometimes hate) Spike Lee was essentially the poster child. His films were popular, almost all of them were great (with a few exceptions like Girl 6) and so many filmmakers and films branched out from him. I’m not even basing this off opinion. That’s just how it was. And even when a Black director put out a film that had absolutely nothing to do with him he found a way to tie himself to it by starting some kind of “beef” (like he did with Matty Rich & Straight Outta Brooklyn). I wonder if Wendell B. Harris had to go through the B.S. of movie studios wanting his films to be more like Spike Lee after Chameleon Street was released (just like in Hollywood Shuffle how casting directors wanted all the Black actors to be more like Eddie Murphy). Maybe the powers that be in movieland didn’t realize that it was ok to have more than two or three prominent Black voices in cinema. Sure, Chameleon Street is somewhat of an obscure/cult hit TODAY, but what about 20+ years ago? These days Wendell B. Harris is working on an on-going fiction/documentary hybrid about Roswell and Aliens which may never get finished (he's been working on it for YEARS). But I'm gonna be honest (and I think many of you aware of Harris’ talent can feel me on this) I'm not interested in a documentary about Roswell from someone like Harris who must have a lot more to say in terms of race, racial identity, society, etc. Just sayin'. Between Obama and the current state of Black music to Oscar Grant & Trayvon Martin, we need Harris' voice more than ever. Judging from Chameleon Street and various interviews, Wendell B. Harris strikes me as a progressive thinking, rule breaking and hardheaded figure that would possibly clash with producers or studios. The film he planned to do after Chameleon Street was supposedly an off-the wall re-telling of Grease so I can imagine how that went over when trying to pitch it or getting funding. But even the hardest headed of maverick, rule breaking directors have gone on to make a name for themselves or have at least been given a few opportunities (Alex Cox, Donald Cammell, Lars Von Trier, Melvin Van Peeples, etc). Kinda like what I said in my write-up on Chameleon Street last year: If movie studios all over the world have tossed money at someone like Alex Cox, why not Wendell B. Harris? What was it about Harris that made studios and/or producers stay away and not wanna work with him? It looks like he’s the true S.D. Sallinger of filmmakers. This is something that really needs to be looked in to.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...