Chameleon Street (1989): Wendell Harris’ Sundance Film Fest Top Winner, a Tale of Compulsive Imposter (Black Cinema, Race)

Set in Detroit and based on a true story, Wendell B. Harris’ original serio-comedy Chameleon Street revolves around Doug, a young handsome black man who is an imposter.

Grade: C+ (**1/2* out of *****)

Chameleon Street
Chameleon Street FilmPoster.jpeg

The source material is the real-life story of William Douglas Street, a Detroit con artist and high-school dropout, who apparently had a brief but successful career as an imposter in the 1970s and the 1980s.

Doug had impersonated professional reporters, lawyers, athletes, extortionists, and surgeons, going so far as to perform more than 36 hysterectomies.

In his first feature, which he also wrote, Harris shows that the obsessive compulsion to adopt strange and alien personalities is a more complex phenomenon than the simple need to please others (women) or to be more integrated into the mainstream.

The movie is meant to be sort of a satirical portrait-diary of a compulsive trickster, who has the confidence and instinct to tell people what they wish to hear.  However, at this phase, Harris is not much of a filmmaker, and his work is amateurish in both the negative and positive senses of the term.

Chameleon Street is a high-concept indie, a feature that, unfortunately, is narratively and visually shapeless.  The writing and dialogue are sharply uneven, and the technical execution leaves much to be desired–the film is too disjointed for its own good.

Surprisingly, Chameleon Street won the grand jury prize of the Dramatic Competition at the 1990 Sundance Film Fest, though it had already premiered at the 1989 Toronto Film Fest.

Distributed by Northern Arts, it was released in April 1990 to mixed critical response.  Despite some good reviews, the film only grossed $235,000 at the box-office, hence failing to recoup its budget.

Credits:

Directed, written by, and starring Wendell B. Harris Jr.
Music by Peter S. Moore

Release dates: Sept 13, 1989, Toronto Festival of Festivals; January 1990, Sundance Film Festival; April 24, 1990 (NYC).

Running time: 94 minutes