INTERVIEW: DIRECTOR WENDELL B. HARRIS, JR. ON THE RE-EMERGENCE OF HIS UNHERALDED BLACK INDIE CLASSIC CHAMELEON STREET
In 1990, Wendell B. Harris, Jr. premiered CHAMELEON STREET, his first and only feature-length film, at Sundance Film Festival, and walked away with the Grand Jury Prize.
What followed is one of the rawest cases of soft suppression in modern American film. CHAMELEON STREET tells the story of Michigan con man William Douglas Street who, throughout the ’70s and ’80s, managed to successfully impersonate a TIME magazine reporter, corporate attorney, Yale medical student, professional athlete, and practicing surgeon, in a remarkable run of lucrative schemes. Written, directed, and acted by Harris himself and funded almost entirely by friends and family, CHAMELEON STREET is a paragon of indie filmmaking—a biting, jarringly insightful, and wickedly funny satire on race, class, and identity performance that skewers the fragile notion of the American dream. Aesthetically, Harris’s virtuosic direction employs a flurry of experimental editing and narrative choices—fantasy sequences, instant replay, jump cuts, animation—that coalesce into one of the truly original landmarks of Black independent cinema.
But, despite critical acclaim, peer champions like Steven Soderbergh (whose 1989 debut SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE landed him on the jury that awarded CHAMELEON STREET Sundance’s top prize) and numerous remake offers with big-name recasts like Will Smith and Wesley Snipes, Harris was left without a major distributor; watching helplessly from the sidelines as Hollywood green-lighted a veritable golden age of ‘90s Black Cinema. He’s quick to name Hollywood’s resistance to the film’s content as the main culprit. In contrast to the more vérité depictions of the era—John Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD, Matty Rich’s STRAIGHT OUTTA BROOKLYN, the Hughes brothers’ MENACE II SOCIETY—CHAMELEON STREET’s tagline, “I think, therefore I scam,” aims right at the heart of American meritocracy, peeling back the myth to poke fun at the self-soothing line white society draws between working man and con man; Wall Street and Douglas Street. Ultimately, when it comes to Black narratives, Hollywood prefers microscopes to mirrors.
In many ways, Douglas Street’s tale of thwarted promise in a society that compels Black Americans to cope by continuously performing different versions of themselves runs parallel to Harris’s own story. Last month AFS screened another Black film that was almost lost to the ether, CANE RIVER by the late Horace Jenkins. There’s an argument to be made that the sheer volume of lost, underfunded, and under-preserved Black American films is enough to constitute a sort of silent, de facto suppression by Hollywood, forever promising a breakthrough but never delivering.
But, thirty years after CHAMELEON STREET’s original release, Harris’s film is finally poised to reach the audience it deserves, and we are excited to present it on the big screen. With a brand new 4K restoration in theaters, a 2022 Blu-ray release on the horizon (both courtesy of Arbelos Films), and a full calendar of national cinema dates, Harris’s optimism is palpable. Ahead of this week’s screenings at AFS Cinema, November 17-21, we spoke with the multi-hyphenate filmmaker via email to discuss the ups, downs, and ultimate resurgence of CHAMELEON STREET.
Technically CHAMELEON STREET employs a myriad of experimental and nonlinear editing and narrative choices—fantasy sequences, instant replay, jump cuts, animation. Do you think, in some ways Hollywood in 1991 was threatened not only by the content of CHAMELEON STREET but by the style of a Black director toying with the ‘rules’ of Cinema?
You make an excellent point, because style should always be the hand-maiden of content. The ‘style’ of CHAMELEON STREET is informed, inspired, and dictated by the premise of presenting Doug’s confession as a kind of ‘living diary.’ Hollywood was not opposed to the film on aesthetic grounds but on the grounds of content. Black people have been fighting this ‘Content War’ in Media for 400 years of America and for 600 years of Western Civilization.
I remember reading Susan Sontag in the early seventies while studying Drama at Juilliard. She kept hinting in her essays that movies are the only art form that could successfully substitute ‘style’ in place of ‘content.’ I remember thinking, ‘This woman is a little crazy. Style could never replace content! People would never stand for it.’ I was wrong. People not only stand for it, they stand in line patiently waiting to buy tickets for it. There is such a dire need for independent filmmakers right now, at this very moment!
In the last few years, there seems to have been a mild resurgence in nonlinear and experimental Black media; projects like Atlanta, Random Acts of Flyness, and I May Destroy come to mind. Do you see any similarities between the current moment and the Black cinema new wave of the early ‘90s?
Well, yes. When it comes to Black people and Hollywood the pattern has always been in-and-out of favor and fashion every few minutes. Whenever Black people are in fashion, it’s great. Right now, we’re in fashion. So it’s great. Right now.
You recalled in a 2007 interview the moment when film critic Elvis Mitchell implied that your film hadn’t just been passed on but actively suppressed. What was that realization like?
Wow. You’re really taking me back. Talk about surreal. That moment you’re alluding to took place in Burbank, Hollywood circa 1991. I’ll never forget it. I’m in the middle of this video interview with Elvis Mitchell, and all of a sudden he drops this bomb. I was instantly shattered right there on camera because I knew he was absolutely right. By 1991 both Elvis Mitchell and [fellow Black critic] Armond White understood before I did that Hollywood was gaming me; that I was being misdirected by endless pitch meetings while CHAMELEON STREET was being effectively bought out and buried. All the money Warner paid out for remake rights, all the talk about Will Smith or Arsenio Hall or Wesley Snipes; it was an intoxicating smoke-screen designed to obscure what was really going down. Bette Davis always said, ‘Hollywood is a plantation.’
You’ve said that one of the things that’s helped sustain you emotionally over the last 30 years, was holding onto the memories of premiering the film and the audience’s positive responses.
Yes, that’s quite true. I saw it in people’s faces… this light of surprise in their faces. It was as if somehow the film had made them some kind of promise that relations between blacks and whites could and would actually improve. I saw this reaction many times in America, in Italy, in Germany, Canada, Africa. One time in Venice I saw this middle-aged Italian gentleman laugh so convulsively hard that the guy actually fell out of his chair.
When’s the last time you watched CHAMELEON STREET with an audience?
In Detroit Michigan, February 2014 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Audiences always get CHAMELEON STREET. Always. I realize that’s a long time, but that’s been my experience with CS audiences these past 30 years. They always get it.
Even in 2021, this film is still so unflinchingly subversive and wickedly funny. How do you see humor functioning in the film? Do you think it makes the themes more palatable or even more uncomfortable to digest?
When you meet the real Doug Street face to face, he’ll have you smiling and/or laughing within 5 minutes. Doug uses humor to entrance, deflect, dissect, beguile and avoid whomever and whatever he wants. In a sense, Doug has weaponized humor, in much the same way as Richard Pryor weaponized humor. Do I think it makes the themes more palatable or more uncomfortable? I would say both; wouldn’t you? But you bring up a really interesting point, the ‘point’ of palatability. Doug knew there were aspects to his story which, to use his word, were ‘unsavory.’ But he was very interested in giving me as honest an appraisal of himself as possible. We agreed to shine as bright a light as possible on his thoughts, words and deeds. To tell the truth about his character. ‘Everybody dabbles in the Truth’, Doug once said to me, ‘but what differentiates people from each other is how much Truth each is willing to tell.’
So far this year, there’s a brand new restoration from Arbelos, successful runs at New York Film Festival and BAM, a writeup in The New Yorker; do you feel hopeful that the current industry climate is finally ripe for CHAMELEON STREET?
An emphatic, ’Yes!’ And, if you mean by “current industry climate” the ascendancy of streaming and blu-ray, CHAMELEON STREET will definitely reach a wider audience. But, please, don’t ever forget the monolithic, almost immutable power of Hollywood Distribution.
What’s next for CHAMELEON STREET? What’s next for Wendell B. Harris the actor/writer/director?
I’m working on my documentary and podcast entitled YESHUA VS FRANKENSTEIN IN 3-D, subtitled, “How Teddie Adorno And His Heathen Venetians Used Media To Cancel The Christ, Control The Crowd, And Color-Code The Globe.” It’s an expose on the media, what Malcolm X called “the most powerful entity in the world.”
The other project I’m working on is a mini-series entitled DR. MEMORY BOGARDE’S BLACK WAX MUSEUM. For 300 years the black and brilliant LIFTON-BOGARDE Family built and maintained a meticulously rendered data-base listing individual atrocities endured by black people in the United States. The core of [the film] is what individual family members actually did with this astonishing data.
ABC’s 20/20 segment “Chameleon Street: The Black Film They Could Not Sell” (1991)
You’ve also mentioned that what’s kept CHAMELEON STREET from disappearing all together is the persistent support of critics who continue to tout it as an unheralded masterpiece. Similarly what role have arthouse cinemas like AFS played in the film’s persistence and, moving forward, in its current revival?
The ball (if not burden) of CHAMELEON STREET has been carried for three decades by film critics and film festivals. I include small local cinemas and arthouse theatres under the aegis of film festival. There isn’t enough time and space for me to accurately describe to you now what these last 30 years have been like vis-à-vis CHAMELEON STREET. Suffice it to say this ‘renaissance’ you say it’s experiencing at the moment would not be taking place if not for all those film critics and film festivals. I love them the way a drowning man loves the person who pulls him out of the water.