September 9, 2022
Wendell B. Harris, Jr.
Wendell B. Harris, Jr.
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
aking it till you make it is rarely as literal as it is in Chameleon Street (1989). In writer-director-star Wendell B. Harris, Jr.’s excellent debut movie, we meet an approximation of the legendary Detroit grifter William Douglas Street, Jr. For years, this Zelig-like master of impersonation temporarily managed to succeed in big-responsibility fields, like law and medicine, he knew nothing about. He was abetted
only by eye-poppingly impressive — and eye-poppingly falsified — résumés and a radiant sense of intelligence that made it easy for employers to believe he was the real thing. (During one interview in the film, Street solves a Rubik’s cube on his potential boss’ desk with an almost otherworldly swiftness.) Before his deceits began, Street worked a burglar-alarm installation job with his father’s company. The throbbing boredom of it, paired with incessant financial worry picked at by his wife and the lack of possibility in his economically depressed Michigan town, were enough to go after deception as his career of choice. With social mobility especially out of reach as a Black man, willing it into existence seemed the quickest, and most easily attainable, means.
Some of Street’s “disguises” were generally harmless, like pretending to be a freelance reporter to interview a woman basketball player he was a fan of. But most others are troubling, like him putting on the guise of a surgeon and actually operating on people despite not knowing what he was doing. (Remarkably, Street managed to perform 36 successful hysterectomies through improvisation guided by some glances in a textbook, a fact that would be more impressive if it weren’t so frightening.)
Cannily, Harris doesn’t entirely examine Street from a third-person perspective. He often actively takes his point of view. Dialogue is minimal in Chameleon Street; usually in its place is ever-present voiceover from this fictionalized Street, expounding with wit and barely contained frustration on the circumstances leading him here — on his thought processes as they might have occurred in real time. Flat, dominated by bland colors, and without any traces of conventional beauty, the shooting style only expands Street’s detached way of looking at life. This also extends to the few relationships he has: they’re more additional games of role-play than things in which he’s genuinely invested. Chameleon Street doesn’t attempt to armchair-diagnose. Harris understands better than most directors working with biography that working to spend time inside a point of view rather than attempting to explain it from some distance is far more revealing an approach toward understanding.
Chameleon Street is among the most original, assured debut features I’ve seen. Its idiosyncratic approach to character isn’t only shrewd — it also sharply invokes (without ever resorting to easy didacticism) the pervasiveness of what amounts to role-playing in the professional world, and how the practice is unequally acceptable for certain people and not others. (Street’s credentials would no doubt not be so swiftly questioned, even after he’s been hired, had he been white.) It’s disappointing Harris has so far never directed another movie. The stylistic and narrative acumen shown in Chameleon Street suggest a director not a film or two away from coming into his own but already a step or two ahead. A