Chameleon Street (1989) Poster

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Just Be Yourself
loganx-29 May 2010
Chameleon Street is a film about a black con man from Detroit who specializes in being a master of plain-sight disguise. Doug Street can enter a room and upon meeting someone understand what they want to see reflected back, and after cutting through the "emotional baggage" of his own personality, assume the role like an actor taking a part. Throughout the course of the film he becomes a surgeon (going so far as to perform several successful operations), a lawyer for a human rights organization, journalist, and a French exchange student. His greatest role and the one he seems to struggle with the most throughout the film are the roles of husband and father. These he only seems capable of, as long as he has another more exciting identity to supplement his "real life". The film is considered to be far ahead of its time in it's critique of the performative and trans formative nature of identity, race, and class, a sort of spiritual cousin to Samuel R. Delany's short story "Time Considered As A Helix Of Semi-Precious Stones".

Street as a character is a clever anti-hero, similar to, but less psychotically unpredictable than Alec Baldwin is in "Miami Blues", but infinitely more entertaining than Leonardo Dicaprio in "Catch Me If You Can". Street survives by his wits and chance, and has an unconcerned Dandylike air about him. He quotes Oscar Wilde "the divine Wilde" and refers to "Vivaldi, Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Sex Pistols, and Ipso Facto" as "the classics" he listens to on his newly fashionable (at the time the film takes place, in the early 80's) Walkman. Essentially he follows in a long tradition of the charming rouge, only viewed through the mind of a clever black man in the early 90's (hence the po-mo, multi-culti stuff). Several people who knew the real Doug Street as one of his personas, including the Mayor of Detroit, appear in the film playing themselves, adding another layer of identity confusion that Hsiao-hsien Hou's "Puppetmaster" and Jason Rietman's "Up In The Air" would similarly use to greater acclaim. Harris has a voice reminiscent of Orson Wells, especially when he narrates, which is for most of the film, and has matching ambitions for a first time director. Harris wants to include everything he's ever thought or felt into a single film as if it would be his last. In fact this is his first and only film, so better too much, than not enough.

Beyond easy designation of social relevance (race, class, etc.), Street's chameleon like behavior is in microcosm the way everyone behaves at a certain basic level, learning to read the people and situations life brings us to, often playing them to our advantage (maybe more than we are even fully aware of), and only occasionally putting our foot down to announce what we are not, at those times when we either cant or refuse to cut through the "baggage of our personalities". You can't be everything to everyone, and the film asks even if it's possible to be yourself to yourself.

Doug Street's narration throughout the film is the story he recounts to amuse himself, creating a pleasant illusion to stave off his own boredom, impatience, and dissatisfaction with being, on top of intelligent enough to perform surgeries though luck, mimicry, and quick study) poor black, lacking a high school diploma, working in his father's burglary installation company and living in his parents house in Detroit. Why go to school, why get a job, when you can be senator tomorrow, or a police officer, or anyone you can imagine (quite literally) with the right combination of confidence and creativity. "All the world's a stage…And one man in his time plays many parts."…that old chestnut.

"Chameleon Street" is not a perfect film, not the funniest ever, or featuring the best cinematography, no one is going to clamor about the use of soft-focus, shadows, mood, blah, blah, blah, and it will not be praised for it's soundtrack (typical of it's time and unimpressive), but like Hal Hartley, Bill Gunn, David Blair, or Mark Rappaport, Wendell B. Harris Jr. is sui generis in his sense of style, focus, and concerns, and if nothing else deserves praise as a great neglected American auteur. There is more personality in this one movie than in some director's entire oeuvre's. Personally, this is my new favorite film the kind you watch twice back to back because you can't believe what you've seen, and pick up your jaw up off the floor hours later. The kind you rant and rave about to everyone you know, fully aware most wont like/get it/care about it. It's okay if you don't like this as much as me, I can't expect you to. If you don't, tomorrow is always available for you to take on a new personality, perhaps one with better taste.
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The BEST Independent Film
aurasphere7 May 2003
Unfortunately, you will probably have a difficult time obtaining a viewing of this. The video store in my area known for having everything charges a couple hundred deposit for it.

Anyway, its a hilarious dark comedy with very sophisticated humor. By that I mean, if you were to not pay attention closely the humor would fly by and you wouldn't even notice. I wouldn't consider myself intellectually challenged, but I had to watch the beginning of this film three times before I understood what happened. The hero - Douglas Street - goes from a crap job to 15 minutes of fame by concocting a scheme involving a political figure. Ok, the scheme is so utterly stupid (funny as hell), yet this is where the picture evolves into the masterpiece it is.

I watched this initially on the Sundance Channel. I was shocked by how this could be an unknown sleeper still. Its weird and right up there with the likes of Clockwork Orange. If you couldn't laugh at that, doubtful you will laugh at this.

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Catch Him If You Can
sol-10 November 2017
Inspired by the real life exploits of an African American man who impersonated everything from a lawyer to a surgeon to a foreign exchange student in the 1970s, 'Chameleon Street' might sound a lot like 'Catch Me If You Can', but this is a distinctly different sort of film. In the hands of writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr., the protagonist is a curiously pitied character: one who cannot help but "intuit" the needs and desires of everyone he meets and "become that need" - far closer to the title character in 'Zelig' than Frank Abagnale Jr. There is a lot to like in how his dilemma feels like a hyperbolic metaphor for the way we all function, acting differently in different situations depending on who else we are with. The film's dramatic crunch comes from how his chameleonic nature impacts on his ability to be the father and husband that his family wants, though this area feels a tad undernourished due to a very false performance by the actress playing his daughter as well as the script's constant inflection towards comedy. And yet, while the laughs tend to overshadow the drama, the funny moments work incredibly well. Highlights include the protagonist lecturing a drunk on how to conjugate the F-word, a fake epileptic seizure that gets out of control and him rambling off a whole string of "J'accuse" sentences while trying to speak French.
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Who IS this guy!? -
Rogue-3230 May 2002
  • Not Douglas Street, who is fascinating, no question, but Wendall B. Harris Jr., who wrote, directed and plays Street in this provocative, cutting edge film?! What an incredible talent, extremely reminiscent of another actor of remarkable gifts, Tim Curry - he has that same droll demeanor, which he uses to its utmost effectiveness in this piece. I notice he's been in Road Trip and Out of Sight, both of which I've seen; I will have to check them out again now that I'm a bonafide, genuine admirer. Can't wait to see what he does next.
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Excellent...Not a simple comedy
cinemadaz14 November 2001
A biting satire based on true stories of separate con-artists that tried to pull various scams, including blackmail and impersonating a reporter, surgeon, lawyer and others. Not a simple comedy so much as a deep look into how different races, social classes and ways of making a living are taken for granted. A true "independent" film, not because of its small budget or Wendell Harris's role as writer-director-star, but from its story and style taking chances. Even after winning best film at Sundance (before it was the super-popular fest it is now), no distributor would pick it up, apparently scared by the film's content. The only offer was to remake the film with "Fresh Prince" Will Smith, effectively putting a happy face on it. Appalled at that idea, Harris held out and STREET finally made an all-too-limited release in theaters and later on home video. Highly recommended.
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This is a refreshing, extremely well written comedy based on the very real exploits of an amazing character. It is a very fun picture.
blackjacketmusic22 September 2000
Chameleon Street is a very amusing look at an intriguing character, who seems to find peace in recreating himself through various occupational, and identity transformations. He brilliantly masquerades as a number of professionals, and takes his audience through a thrill ride of elaborate schemes to make money, while carefully concealing his true identity. Ultimately, he is unable to escape his own character flaws, which cause his elaborate plot to unravel, thread by thread, before his very eyes. Although other stories have chronicled the lives of impostors, none have been told in such a refreshingly comical manner. It is a treat to watch.
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Mercurial nature of distribution
broadbrain14 March 2005
It's a shame this film didn't get more notice and better distribution at the time it was released, in spite of being championed by indie fave Steven Sorderbergh. I've been waiting for another directorial effort from Wendell B. Harris, but nothing appears to be forthcoming. That's unfortunate but indicative of the realities of contemporary Hollywood, where talented black performers are given short shrift in favor of the bottom line. This usually means that the project that gets made is based on the name recognition of the rising black star who's attached and where they are on the pop music charts.

Even though the film itself suffered a bit on the production value end because of its low budget, the story was original and Mr. Harris' portrayal of the identity shifting protagonist was exhilarating for its boldness. The idea of person of color who unapologetically subverts "the system" is daring in and of itself. The fact that it was done with style and a good bit of humor was both refreshing and encouraging. It says that there are statements to be made through the medium of film without being overtly confrontational or dogmatic.
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This guy can write
markwood27217 June 2022
I saw this movie after it was recommended by The Criterion Channel. The premise of "Chameleon Street" is simple: a guy needs money, so he impersonates people in order to get money.

Titular William Douglas Street's morality is vintage confidence man, as is his technique. The film's narrative is uncomplicated, a by the numbers imposter flick in the tradition of "The Great Imposter (1961) or "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) with a hint of "Hollywood Shuffle" (1987).

"Chameleon Street" appears to have had a low but decent budget, unlike some other Sundance successes. At times the camera and lighting techniques reminded me of Robert Florey's "The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra" (1928).

If the movie has a problem, it resides with Street himself. An imposter only after money, a point Harris emphasizes in addressing the camera, falls a little flat, at least in relation to, say, the Will Smith character of Paul, in "Six Degrees of Separation" (1993). Street displays only the mundane pathology of straitened circumstances with a little greed thrown in. There is hardly any dark side to his character, unlike Ferdinand Waldo Demara's great imposter or DiCaprio's Frank Abagnale.

Actor Wendell Harris gives an adequate, if less than brilliant, rendition of his subject. I would have appreciated a little less of his overbroad, wink-wink approach to some of Street's "roles". But writer Harris is good, very good. The dialog is often witty, eloquent, even garnished with butchered French in one of Street's "roles". According to this website, this movie is Harris' only writing credit, a shame. This guy can write.

If you want to hear well crafted dialog composed with wit, verve, and all those other things that have been missing from your screens, this is the movie for you.
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