Friday, January 16, 2009
Mike Plante wrote about the DVD release of Chameleon Street in our Load & Play section in 2007. The film will screen at this year's Sundance Film Festival in its Sundance Collection section.
In Chameleon Street, the enigmatic Doug Street goes through a series of cons, sometimes to make money, sometimes to prove he can do more than what the world expects of him. In short time he goes from a simple extortion plot to complex impersonations, including as a reporter from Time, a Yale student, a lawyer and even a surgeon. Yes, a surgeon – who performed 36 successful hysterectomies.
The point of the film is not just to tell a story of a con man, but asks what a black man is expected to do to make a living in this modern world. Based mostly on the true story of super-con-man William Douglas Street, Jr. the film is written and directed by Wendell B. Harris, Jr. who also turns in an uncanny performance as the lead character.
The film existed in the burgeoning indie cinema of the early 90s. Unlike most of the films around him though, Harris provided a complicated character and not a simple genre drama or comedy. The extremely intelligent Street has great ideas to fight the system, but is constantly stumped by tiny details he cannot control. It’s a drama and you root for Street to win but feel sorry for the people getting conned as well. And it’s bittersweet funny, as the sardonic humor in the film rings all too true. Above all, you feel the frustration that leads to fighting back against the grain.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990. But that didn’t lead to distribution. Rather, the prize led to many meetings in Hollywood and the insult of a possible remake rather than a distribution deal. Studios wanted to make new versions with various actors. Harris remembers, “Each time it was given to a different person, it was given a different ambience. For Wesley Snipes, it was changed into a kind of car chase movie. For Sinbad, it was changed into a kind of goof-ball character. For Arsenio, it was a hybrid of the two.” Will Smith also wanted to remake it, and has twice redone a scene from Chameleon Street where Harris solves a rubik’s cube to impress an employer. Luckily, no one ever reworked the smart, artistic Street to a happy-go-lucky version. Unfortunately, no one wanted to release the original film.
Harris shopped around many ideas in the 90s, including Negropolis, a version of ancient Rome where the emperor and ruling elite are all black and all the slaves are white. Roles were written for Oprah Winfrey as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and Cosmetology, Howard Stern as Alexander the Great and Harris as Canigula – Caligula with a ‘N.’ The film has not been made....yet.
After three years in Burbank, a friend of Harris let him know the brutal joke that was going around town: “All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.”
Harris decided it was time to move back to Michigan and continue to work on his own projects as his award-winning film was being suppressed in Hollywood. Chameleon Street eventually got a forgettable theatrical release and Harris was able to write some scripts. Only now at the end of 2007 does the film finally get a DVD release. The extras on the DVD include a 33-minute pseudo-trailer for his longtime project Arbiter Roswell, which will end up as a three-hour feature film. Also on the DVD is an audio commentary by longtime supporters and writers Armond White and Michael Reiter, behind-the-scenes video and two great short films as unique as the feature: So You Know Leadbelly? and Colette Vignette, both resulting from working with the actors in Street.
I recently interviewed Harris for my zine Cinemad, available right here. Clips from the film are available on the Wholphin blog right here.
DVD available now from Home Vision and Image Entertainment for $26.99.
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