Writer/director Wendell B. Harris, Jr.'s groundbreaking, boundary pushing debut, “Chameleon Street” tracks a cunning con man, a professional shape-shifter. See, a chameleon is a reptile known for changing its complexion, allowing for it to hide in plain sight, so its predators might mistake it for another, less appealing prey. So there’s irony in the film’s title. Because once you see Harris’ “Chameleon Street,” you’re unlikely to forget it, or mistake it with anything else ever again.
Harris stars as Douglas Street, a real life extortionist capable of passing in any profession, no matter his education level. Unlike Frank Abagnale, the real-life protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can,” Street rarely impersonates anyone for money (he did try to scam Detroit Tigers left fielder Willie Horton by blackmailing his wife with salacious pictures supporting fabricated claims of her husband’s infidelity). Rather, it was the thrill of inserting himself in exclusionary white spaces that fueled his escapades. In the film, Street assumes the role of lawyer, Yale student, journalist, athlete, and doctor, ultimately performing more than 36 successful hysterectomies.
Harris learned of Street’s story by reading an article about the extortionist in the Detroit News. He spent several years writing the script, and a few months filming it. By 1990, the film was set to premiere at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. But rather than fielding a bevy of offers from distributors, as is customary for jury prize winners, none came Harris' way. The film languished undistributed for over a year until its limited release in 1991. Only Warner Bros. seemed interested, acquiring the remake rights, but not the film itself.
“Chameleon Street” was ahead of its time and remains ahead of its time. Harris masterfully uses Street as a surrealist conduit to explore how Black identity traverses through white spaces and the debilitating ways Black folks could achieve limitless success, if only they were given the opportunity. It’s a bold, layered passing narrative that challenges as Michael Boyce Gillespie explains in Film Blackness, the “classical hierarchy of white happiness and Black lack ... [fuming] with disdain for whiteness and antiblack standard of normativity.” And it does so with anti-hero flair: Street is misogynistic, ego-driven, selfish and sometimes, a bit of a fool. And Harris plays both sides—as an actor, writer and director—with aplomb for crushing comedic effect.
Now, 30 years later, “Chameleon Street” has been restored, under supervision by Harris, by Arbelos Films for a 4K release. RogerEbert.com spoke with Harris by phone about the making of the movie, Black performance in white spaces, and the movie’s impact with present-day viewers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
While you were writing "Chameleon Street," did you interview Douglas Street?
I had never heard of him until spring of 1985. When I read in the Detroit News, their Sunday supplemental section [had] an extensive piece about Doug's career, which had begun in 1970 and progressed up until 1985, at that point. I immediately contacted him and arranged for an interview. At the time he was incarcerated in upper state Michigan at the Kinross Correctional facility. I went there with Pam Fultz as my cameraman. That was the first interview, which was conducted on three-quarter video, and that began a three-year process. I constantly interviewed him through video, audio, phone calls and letters. I didn't interview anybody else in his life—only Doug Street.
Outside of interviewing, did Douglas Street have other contributions to the movie?
As time has gone on, I have noticed that people—audience members, film critics—they all tend to think, or want to think, or come to think, that Wendell wrote or invented this sequence or that sequence. Even Doug has, at times, been somewhat confused on this point. For example: when the film first came out, the poster devised by Northern Arts, a boutique distributor that handled the film, had the quote: “I think, therefore I scam.” I was immediately contacted by Doug saying that he was offended that that was being used for the poster campaign. And I had to remind him that he was the one who said that line. I just want to make sure people don't think this was a film that emerged out of my imagination. It all comes from intensively interviewing him for three years.
What was shooting the movie like, the feeling on set?
I don't think anybody's ever quite asked me that question. So thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed and was exhilarated by the actual shooting, which began in November of 1987 and lasted until April of 1988. In February there was a two-week hiatus. And that was because we had to take two weeks off and get more money from more investors. Money is always hovering above your head when you're making a film and we had to take two weeks off, but the actual production was absolutely happening.
"Chameleon Street" won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance. Can you describe what the audience was like during the premiere?
Well, first of all, I probably should mention that with the exception of my family and myself and the film critic Armond White, and the actor Alfre Woodard, everybody was white. And there was a very interesting reaction at the very first screening: I remember when we were doing the Q&A after the screening, in the front row, there were like six white females all in their mid-30s or early-30s. They kept asking questions, which sounded vaguely hostile, and their facial expressions were vaguely hostile and they seemed to be slightly alarmed by the film.
But there were other audience members who seemed to be surprised and delighted. There was one guy in the back who kept asking all these penetrating questions. And finally I said to him, after like the third question: "That's a great question. Are you a filmmaker or something?" And he said: "Yeah, my name's Steven Soderbergh."
The film surprisingly wasn’t picked up for distribution out of Sundance. What were the negotiations like at the festival?
The negotiations were N.I.L.—nil. I was surprised, and of course, disappointed, that we did not get a distributor. The year before, when Steven had been there with “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” he had been approached by several studios at the Sundance premiere. That's what my expectation was, after the grand prize was awarded to the film, I thought we would be going back to the Chateau, where we were put up, and I'd be fielding offers from various distributors. We did have many visitors that night. My mother, she made them spaghetti, I remember that. I got a bottle of Dom Pérignon delivered that night to the Chateau from Alan J Pakula. He sent a note saying: "Welcome. Loved your film. Congratulations." That was wonderful. But there were no offers for a year.
Its remake rights were eventually picked up by Warner Bros. In the past, actors like Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, and Keegan-Michael Key have been attached to it. Do you think "Chameleon Street" should be remade?
Robert—nobody has ever asked me that. That's interesting. Frankly, I’ve been somewhat ambivalent about the entire Warner Brothers purchase of remake rights. On the one hand, it was the single most amount of money that “Chameleon Street” ever made when they bought the rights for $250,000. That was gratifying. However, as you know, they refused to distribute our film, and instead negotiated and purchased the remake rights. So if you want to remake the film, fine, but does the “Chameleon Street” made by us have to be buried?
So on the one hand, I was appreciative because, you know, once you make a film for $1.5 million you want to pay back all the investors, and my family was the main investor. I definitely wanted to pay them back. And frankly, not many people have an idea of this, but if you make a movie and it loses money, that devastates your ability to make another film.
There’s the idea of performance: Street describes his cons as roles and parts. He’s never doing it for the money, really, except for the Willie Horton scam. Can you talk about the role of performance, especially for Black people in spaces made exclusionary by white people?
One thing that’s always been true about the Black experience in America, and I'm not the first to make this observation, but if you are put in a position of being subservient, if you are oppressed by an oppressor, you learn all that you can about your oppressor. White people have not had that dilemma. They have essentially been able to skirt what the Black experience is, what are the interstices of Black persona and life. But Black people have had to understand white people as well as themselves. So it's a different position. It's one that “Chameleon Street” does explore, what W.E.B. Du Bois called that “twoness” of the Black experience, that double tightrope that we have to walk. Performing is absolutely critical to a slave, to the disinherited. Performing is at the crux of your lives.
How did the restoration come about?
Essentially since 2000, “Chameleon Street” began to get a lot of inquiries from companies about DVD production. In 2007, the film was released on DVD by Image Entertainment. That contract lapsed in 2014. Around 2016, we began to get queries regarding a Blu-ray release. And there were a handful, until 2017 when Arbelos Films made their offer. All of the offers prior to Arbelos had not been that enticing. So we had not signed with anybody. But Arbelos, to quote Brando in “The Godfather,” they made us an offer that we could not refuse.
Have you talked with Douglas Street since?
The last time I spoke with Doug was 1995, and we have not been in contact since then. Although, interestingly enough, when the film was being written between 1985 and 1987, and then produced in '88 and '89, as I said, all I did was talk to Doug and only Doug. I didn't talk to his kindergarten teacher or his mother or his ex-wives or his attorney, only Doug. Then the film came out and essentially almost everything was reversed. Doug and I have not really communicated since 1995, but I've had incredible contact with various people in his life, since then, you know, his attorneys and his family members and his ex-wives. Also people who actually interfaced with him, people like a couple of the women whom he operated on.
What’s been the reaction to the film from the people who know Doug?
The only really negative reactions I've ever gotten about “Chameleon Street” have come mainly from the women he operated on. As implied, or stated in the film, Doug's surgeries were always successful. He never maimed or disfigured anyone. But the people who were actually operated on have generally been offended that a film was made about Doug. Some of them have been livid. I've been accosted on Facebook by some of them over the years, people who immediately take the stance that “Chameleon Street” is celebrating or glorifying Doug. Which was not the purpose, but that was their interpretation of the film that Doug was a criminal who should not be, in any way, celebrated or glorified in any way.
What do you hope audiences today take from the film?
I hope today—as I talked to you at 12:32 PM on the 20th of October 2021, it's amazing to me that I'm saying this but my hope is identical to what it was 30 years ago, after standing up there at Sundance and accepting that award—that the film be seen. That is what filmmakers want. You don't make a film to have it be suppressed or set on a shelf and not be seen again. You make it to be seen.
The 4K restoration of "Chameleon Street" is now playing at BAM Cinema.