Chameleon Street

Wendell B. Harris Jr.
,
US
,
1990
,
DCP
,
colour
,
93'

This highly original existential black comedy charts the real-­life exploits of William Douglas Street Jr. (played with a great deal of charisma and wit by writer­-director Wendell B. Harris Jr.), a compulsive imposter whose improbable successes are spurred along by the fact that he’s black. From the late 70s to the mid­80s Street carried off a number of impersonations, presenting himself as a Time magazine reporter, a surgery intern (he performed 23 successful operations), a Caribbean exchange student at Yale, and a civil rights attorney; various other scams landed him in prison. Without wasting any time on facile psychologizing, Harris uses his subject as a means to explore the paradoxes of acting (some of Street’s real­-life victims play themselves) and the invisibility of blacks in the US; Street is also the source of some very funny comedy. In all, this disturbing yet compelling rogue’s progress calls to mind an 18th­-century picaresque novel.... Wendell B. Harris Jr. demonstrates probably the darkest sense of being black since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man! (Jonathan Rosenbaum)

As it is, Chameleon Street exists as a gloriously strange one-off that deserves to be appreciated by a new generation sure to delight in its rich palette of cinematic reference, humour and formal invention. A lost masterpiece of black American cinema, Chameleon Street is, as I discovered, a cinematic road well worth walking.” — Ashley Clark, Sight & Sound

Like its character, the film keeps on freewheeling without a horizon in sight, aggregating sketches, voice-over comments, language changes (Street is keen on French) and more or less extravagant disguises (beautiful scene in which he puts on a costume from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast), all the while retaining a tone of acid mockery reinforced by the sickly arrogance of the black chameleon.” — Camille Bui, Cahiers du Cinéma

 

English spoken, no subtitles