Given how much Tambay and other writers for this blog have talked about “Chameleon Street,” urging that it’s a film we all must see, I finally watched it for the first time over the July 4 weekend. It’s been on my list of films to see since I started reading this blog (I found Shadow and Act over the last Christmas holiday) but I just didn’t get to it until now.
I should preface this by saying that I’m not some expert film critic (this is the first review, or critique, or whatever you want to call it that I’ve ever written), so my piece on the film is that of a person who simply loves movies and has seen a few, and who tries to watch with a critical eye and not just passively. And I thank Tambay for allowing me to share my lengthy response to the film and film reviewing in general here, and also for helping me shape my thoughts about it.
And now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, this is what I spent the last 3 days writing about my reactions to the film.
A film that was a Sundance darling in 1990, but barely registered on any radar afterwards, “Chameleon Street” received very limited theatrical release by a company called Northern Arts. From what I’ve read about it on this blog and elsewhere, it was a kind of last minute deal, because from all accounts, despite its win at Sundance, there really wasn’t much interest in the film from distributors at the time. I read that many said they didn’t know how to market it, or that audiences, maybe more specifically black audiences, weren’t ready for a film like it, which I feel is an insulting claim. And so the deal with Northern Arts wasn’t quite as lucrative and as advantageous as it could have been for the film and filmmaker, Wendell B. Harris Jr. And it’s a shame because this is a film that deserved and still deserves to be seen, given the dearth of black films at the time, and even more so, black films of this caliber and content. It just kind of went unnoticed. It’s a film that’s held up well, and as far as I’m concerned, is still very much a more interesting film than the bulk of black films I’ve seen in the last 25 years since “Chameleon Street” was released.
As I sat down to make notes on specific items from the film that I wanted to make sure I touch on, I had a moment in which I questioned the idea of the film review altogether. I thought about something that I read on this blog previously (although I can’t remember who said it), that there were certain films we watched at younger ages that just didn’t appeal to us right away, and that it wasn’t until much later, after we had learned how to appreciate these films, either via instruction from the film classes we took, or from reading about the films and why they were considered good or great, or just life experiences in general and maturing, that we were able to then appreciate the films, seeing them in a new light. And someone pushed back against that argument saying that we all have an innate emotional response to the films that we see, as opposed to an intellectual one – essentially saying that one shouldn’t have to be taught or told, how or whether they should like a film, or not like it. You watch a film, and you have an immediate emotional response to it – you either like or you don’t like it; no need to intellectualize it. And your response is based on your cumulative life experiences at that moment in time as you’re watching the film. And as you evolve, your life experiences will dictate your responses to not only film, but all art in general; or actually, all stimuli that life throws at you.
So, I read reviews of films by different film critics, and often I find myself thinking out loud and would say something like, “well, did you like the film or not,” after reading some theoretical, voluminous diatribe on the story, or a character within the story, or some specific scene. Reviews like those have their audience; And while I think I am a pretty smart guy, and I can sometimes appreciate film reviews like those, I find that I often just want something succinct – basically, just tell me if you like the film or not, and why, in 1 or 2 paragraphs. And Maybe it’s the “thumbs up” culture that Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel created with their film review show, that makes one long for simplicity, as opposed to what others would consider “mental masturbation,” as some have said about reviews/critiques that have been posted on this site in the past. But I find that I’d like some middle-ground in there somewhere. Neither extreme.
So, in thinking about reviewing “Chameleon Street,” I felt like I needed to watch it at least twice: first, passively, as I think most of us watch movies; and a second time, watching it more critically, making notes (written or mental) as I went along. And in doing so, I realized just how much fun I was taking out of the experience by watching it critically, as opposed to just sitting back and enjoying the experience, getting lost in the moment, and letting the filmmaker take me wherever he wanted to. In doing so, I found myself paying very close attention to every single detail about the film – everything! Every cut, every actor’s performance in every moment, every visual and aural choice made, every prop in each scene, everything!! And then I took out my history books and looked up other events that were occurring at the time the film takes place, which was in the late 70s/early 80s, and then I would dissect the story, and analyze it in terms of the zeitgeist of its era. And then I dug even further, considering that this is a story about a black man in America in the 70s and 80s who cons his way through white American establishments. And I would try to put all that into some historical, social, political, economical, philosophical context, etc, etc, etc… and man, I realized how much all that just wasn’t much fun, at all; because, in doing so, I was completely taken out of the film altogether, and after watching it, I sat there, breathed out a sigh of relief and thought to myself, jeez, I don’t know if I like the film as much as I did the first time I watched it passively, or thought I did. Not that I discovered that I hate it; absolutely not! But in approaching the viewing experience this way, it killed the buzz, so to speak, because I found things about it that I didn’t care for – things that I likely overlooked the first time I saw it, when I was simply just not watching it critically, and instead giving myself over fully to the experience, and having a sort of primal, emotional reaction to it, minus all the other “intellectual clutter.” So… maybe ignorance really is bliss.
BUT… not-so fast my friends… in watching the film “critically,” and doing all the additional work that I mentioned above, I opened up and exposed myself to knowledge that I didn’t quite grasp previously. Or, maybe it was always there, but I just never made the effort to tap into it effectively. So I can say unequivocally that I am smarter today than I was before I watched “Chameleon Street! And my head hurts now. Of course I’m joking; but seriously, I’m glad I did the work that I did, because I’m more aware than I was before. Now whether I’m better off as a human being, that’s certainly debatable.
The thing is, after watching with my thinking cap on, I almost couldn’t see it any other way, almost as if I’d forgotten how to simply just respond to it emotionally, because the other things I found, now that I’m fully aware of them, have obviously influenced my reactions to the film. And I remember sitting there after I watched it, thinking, why do I like this again? And then I just started laughing because I must have sat and then paced for several minutes, pondering this question, unable to reach an answer. Basically, upon initially watching it, and liking it, I didn’t know why I liked it for sure; I just know that I did, and still do by the way. I had a favorable response to it, and I thought, well, maybe that’s OK to not know exactly why; maybe that’s what’s meant by having a sort of primal response to it. It just is. And that’s OK. Sort of like, uh, love, for example.. um… you don’t or can’t really define it, you just know when you feel it… and it’s real, and no one can tell you that it’s not… not a psychologist or a psychotherapist with decades of clinical experience… it just is, and it’s you and yours (INSERT SMILEY FACE HERE). Or maybe that’s just all bullshit, and all I’m doing is, once again, over-thinking and over-analyzing. But as the scorpion said to the frog, I can’t help myself. It is in my nature (a line used in “Chameleon Street” that summarizes the ethos of the title character William Douglas Street).
What does this all mean Mr Murray, I’m sure you’re asking? What’s the point? Well, the point is that… well, maybe there is no point, and I was just thinking out loud, and bringing you along for the ride. But I suppose if there is a point to all that, it’s that I hope to strike a healthy balance between the cerebral and the visceral with my review. But at the end of it all, you’ll know exactly what I feel about the film… I hope.
So, I’m sure you’re all dying to ask the question, Mr Murray, did you like the film or not, and tell us why, in 2 paragraphs or less, without intellectualizing it, but also not dumbing it down either.
I think most of us have heard the story of the Scorpion and the frog – where the scorpion asks the frog to help it get across a stream, since scorpions can’t swim, and of course the frog isn’t too keen on helping because it’s afraid that the scorpion will kill it afterwards. Long story short, the scorpion convinces the frog to help him get across the stream by riding on the frogs back, and of course, the scorpion does sting the frog, before they even cross the stream, and the frog dies; actually both die, and as they sink to their deaths into the stream, the frog asks the scorpion why he did what he did, and they scorpion answers, because it’s in its nature. It can’t help itself.
That story is told at the very end of “Chameleon Street,” as the end credits roll, and the sequence ends with Douglas Street, our anti-hero, saying, well, because it’s my character… it’s his nature to be a con man… he can’t help himself. Once you know the story, it’ll all make sense. “Chameleon Street” is based on the real life escapades of William Douglas Street, a black man in late 1970s/early 80s America, who, through intellect, charm, wit, skill, and just pure luck, is able to con his way into various establishments, assuming various identities, including a reporter for Times Magazine, a surgeon, and an attorney. He’s an autodidact, and is able to exist in each of these fields and more, without any formal training or education, and does so convincingly enough to fool those who worked in each of these fields, who did have the proper education/training, and years and years of work experience. He navigates each world, quite efficiently, although one can say maybe not-so efficiently (he’s eventually caught), and his success as a con man was due in large part to the stupidity and gullibility of the victims of his schemes. Each time, he does get caught, but sometimes because of his own careless mistakes and not because of the investigative genius of the authorities. His final undoing comes at the hand of his wife, Gabrielle, who was with him during most of his con man days, and was aware of his schemes, although maybe not always as they were happening. But she stuck it out with him, and eventually got tired of his entire shtick and turned him over to the authorities when he was posing as a human rights attorney in Michigan.
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For me, at the core of “Chameleon Street” is this innate need for survival. You have this man, a black man, trying to exist in this country, and do so successfully, not necessarily to live lavishly, but who was really just trying to provide the basics for himself and his family. Of course the notoriety I’m sure was quite a head rush for him. But throughout the film, we hear him talk about his need to make money, which seems to be his sole motivation. And it doesn’t help that he’s married to a materialistic woman, who, early in the marriage would send him off to work with the words, “make some money…” I think my primal response to it was actually one of a certain compassion. Maybe because I’m a man, in my early 30s (and I can’t speak for every man), there’s this unspoken pressure, whether real or perceived, to be successful. Again not necessarily wealthy, just capable of providing and supporting a household sufficiently. The pressure comes from society. We’re all social constructs and we’re affected by those around us – what we read, watch, hear, people we meet, etc. And as a man in that age group when you’re expected to have settled down with a wife, or at least have a partner that you intend to spend the rest of your life with, and you meet women who, also thanks in large part to socialization, have somewhat innate expectations of you, as a provider, and protector of house and home. Not that this is how it is for all of us, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that this is likely how it is for the majority of us, even though nowadays, there are more 2-income households than there once were, and that’s continuing to change, and more men are choosing to stay at home and their wives are the ones bringing home the bacon. So despite the current paradigm shift in gender roles, there are still gender-specific expectations of men, as well as women. But since we’re talking about a man here, the point is, I could empathize somewhat with his plight. Not that I condone illegal activity, but I can understand his motivation, and as I said, especially with the added pressure from his materialistic wife, Gabrielle to, as she said, make some money (at least, she’s depicted as materialistic). Granted he didn’t have to marry her, but, he did, and that added to his quandary.
But the way I’m talking about the film, I realize that one might think it’s a serious drama, when in fact it’s somewhat the opposite. It is a drama, but it’s more a comedy than anything else, or a dramedy with social commentary. Or you could also call it a tragedy – a comedic one. No, it’s not knee-slapping humor, but it’s definitely funny – smart and funny.
The acting is decent for the most part. The lead character is played by Wendell B. Harris Jr, who, by the way, also wrote and directed the film. He’s in every scene, and he’s quite engaging in the role. His look, his base voice, his charisma, his timing, his deadpan comedic expressions, even his style – you’re definitely drawn to him from the beginning, for one or all of those reasons, and that’s obviously a good thing, because he is in every single scene. Some of the supporting roles aren’t portrayed as strongly, notably that of the woman who plays his wife, Gabrielle, and some of others, but it’s worth noting that this was an ultra-low budget film. I don’t know what exactly the budget was. I couldn’t find it online anywhere. But it’s obviously a very low-budget film. So the cinematography isn’t superior; the sound work isn’t as good as some of the multi-million dollar films you’ve all seen at the theatres; and he didn’t use true professionally trained actors either. In fact, some of the characters played themselves as they are in real life. But, and that’s a big but (and I want to beat this into all your heads folks because I’m tired of hearing people complain about production values, and things like that)… It’s a low budget film – check; It’s technically inferior, in comparison to most films with significantly higher budgets – check; The acting is a little shaky in certain scenes – check. BUT IT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S A BAD FILM. That’s just often the nature of indie filmmaking, when you’re working with a budget that’s equivalent to the average cost of a new car sold in the USA. There isn’t the same kind of access to resources as a multi-million dollar production would have. So, yes, there are going to be kinks here and there. It’s not going to be glossy and pretty all the time. BUT it doesn’t mean you should dismiss these films. There’s a lot of very good work out there that’s being overlooked not only by the major studios, but also by audiences, because they’ve been tagged with the independent or low-budget label. And that’s unfortunate! So, I am requesting – no, actually I am demanding that you give some of these films a chance, because you would be quite pleasantly surprised in some instances. If “She’s Gotta Have It” was made today I don’t know if it would have received the same attention as it did back then in 85/86. And Spike Lee may never have gotten a chance, or Jim Jarmusch, or Todd Haynes, or Daren Aronofsky, or Kevin Smith, and others like them, who got their starts making these super low budget films, in some cases really low budget, like Kevin Smith’s first film, “Clerks,” which was made for under $30,000.
But I digress…
Another immediate reaction I had to “Chameleon Street” was that the character looked like me, sounded like me, and was interested in many of the same things that I am interested in, and I had not seen a character that I could readily identify with on screen, that I could say, yeah, if I knew that guy in real life, he and I would probably run in the same circles and might even be good friends (not the con-man part though). I don’t remember when I realized this. I don’t think it was while I was actually watching the film, but sometime afterward, probably as I pondered it. But yes, here was a black man with what would be considered academic pursuits and knowledge in a wide variety of subjects, as indicated throughout the film. We listen to him briefly mentions and/or give dissertations on French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, his film “Beauty & the Beast,” Edith Piaf, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Barbie, Oscar Wilde, Vivaldi, Jimi Hendrix, Debussy, Sex Pistols, Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Marat,” Thor, Spider-Man, The Hulk… I mean, a variety of things he had interest in and could speak knowledgeably about; but at the same time, still very well aware of his blackness, and the plight of those who look like him. He still knew where he came from. That really appealed to me, because I had never seen quite a character like that on screen – a black male character anyway. But, yes, I could relate because that is my life as well: I am a black man in America, from an upper middle class family, with a wide variety of interests – interests that exist outside the realm of what America might think a man like me would be interested in, based almost solely on my appearance, but who’s also very well aware of my blackness, and of those who look like me, and actually wanting to affect social change. So seeing this character on screen was quite refreshing for me.
One of the funniest, most memorable scenes in the film happens while he and Gabrielle are having dinner at a restaurant, and they are interrupted by a pathetic white racist who makes some lewd remarks about Gabrielle, and curses out Douglas Street. What follows is probably one of the most memorable scenes in the film, if not the most memorable scene. He essentially gives the white man an astute, humorous lesson on the history and various uses and pronunciations of the “F” word. It’s a classic scene, and one that unfortunately never caught on, because it’s really good, and really funny. But I think that scene alone captures Douglas Street’s multi-dimensional persona quite well. We see him as this rather arrogant yet amiable sophisticate. In fact, also adding to this are the 3 or so scenes during which he is subject to analysis by white shrinks, who try to demystify him, but his smarts and wit overwhelm them, proving just how much more ahead and capable he is than they are. It’s funny because it seems like he has this simultaneous fascination and contempt for white people, which never really gets worked out. At least I don’t think so. Something else to ponder, I suppose.
The film is full of visual metaphors – it’s kind of hard to miss them actually. In at least 2 scenes, he deliberately puts on masks, first at a costume ball where he goes as the beast from “Beauty & The Beast” in Cocteau’s film of the same name; he does so again towards the end of the film when he puts on a mask while at home, as he plays with his little daughter. Also, there are several scenes when he’s deliberately in the dark, literally – the lighting in those scenes is set up to deliberately hide his face in darkness, while the rest of his body is visible in light. So we get some visual tricks like that which I think work well, and are a good use of metaphors, symbolic of the character’s state of mind.
And then we get some overt exposition, like the scene where he fakes slitting his wrist, with his daughter sitting on his lap, as he says to his daughter, who asks him why he is pretending to slit his wrists: “I’m so sick, I’m so screwed up, I’m insane…” The whole scene is a game, all meant to be jovial, but the moment in which it happens is actually much heavier, given the camerawork and somber/sinister music playing in the background.
He uses an interesting transition technique throughout the film, to indicate the passage of time. Nowadays most films would use a simple fade or straight cut, but instead Harris uses the image and sound of a train zooming by to cut from certain scenes to other scenes, and it’s actually quite effective I think. One could also see that as a metaphor for the progression of his life at the time – a speeding train, recklessly moving without any real sense of direction or destination. It works.
One weakness to the film is Harris’ lack-luster portrayal of women. The 2 primaries here are his wife Gabrielle, and lover, Amina. I realized that in an almost precursor of Bleek Gilliam’s dilemma in Spike Lee’s “Mo’Better Blues” (which would come out 2 years later) Douglas Street finds himself torn between 2 women – the fairer-skinned, materialistic, and not-too-bright, rather annoying Gabrielle whom he eventually marries, and the significantly darker-skinned, Yale-educated, French-speaking sophisticate Amina, from Kenya, who seems more of an intellectual equal than Gabrielle, even though he marries Gabrielle. So not quite the same setup as in “Mo’Better Blues,” but the complexion issue, one that has been very much discussed within our community and is still in discussion, was an obvious resemblance. But the portrayals of these 2 women in “Chameleon Street” are certainly not the most complex. They are mostly 1-dimensional, and are there almost really as props and not fully fleshed-out developed characters. Neither has a lot of screen time, although Gabrielle is on screen significantly longer than Amina, but her performance is very sort of one-note, and we barely get to know her past her bickering, nagging, and complaints about her husband and his inadequacies. So that might leave a sour taste in the mouths of some of you after you watch it.
A question I had throughout the film was just how a black man, in late 70s/early 80s America, was able to con his way, falsely assuming various professions, from Reporter, to surgeon, to attorney – none of which he had any real training or schooling for, but was obviously able to display enough knowledge and prowess to fool those around him within these institutions, at least long enough until he got caught. The interesting thing is that he may have been able to go even further at many of these positions if it were not for, in some cases, rather minor mistakes. Like the Time magazine incident for example, when a word he misspelled in a letter caused a background check to be made on him, which then obviously exposed his fraud. But the film was based on on a real life story by the way, so I thought it was incredible that he was able to do so much, and fool so many people, white people specifically, and get away with it so often. Maybe it speaks to the complacency of Americans; or maybe it was the fact that he spoke so eloquently, and seemed quite knowledgeable, and looked and played the parts well. Was that enough to fool so many people into thinking he was someone he was not? Or is white America so willing to accept a black man of his caliber and pedigree whether real or perceived, because he was the kind of black man that white America would like black men to be? He was safe. He didn’t pose any immediate threats to them on the surface, as they might have thought. He played the parts well; like the title says, he was a chameleon. There is even a scene when he’s being analyzed by a white psychologist, and he admits that he has a knack for giving people what they want; he meets someone, is able to quickly assess their expectations of him, and he adjusts himself to fit their stereotype, whatever that might be. Much of the film takes place in the northern states, in the 70s and 80s, so maybe one could also make a case for white liberal guilt? I can almost hear them say to him, earnestly, “you speak very well” (something that I myself have heard a lot of), almost as if they think that they’re paying him a compliment, not realizing just how insulting that really is.
At the end of it all, Street gets his just deserts. In the film, h poses as a French exchange student from Martinique who calls himself Pépé Le Mofo. For those who don’t know, it’s a riff on the character in the 1937 French film called “Pépé Le Moko,” about a charming Parisian gangster who rules in the district of Casbah. Surrounded and protected by women and his gang, he is unattainable by the French and Algerian police forces. And much like Moko, Street’s final undoing and capture are brought about in large part by a woman – his wife’s turning him into the authorities.
I read an article that said that the filmmaker, Wendell B. Harris Jr. intended the film to be a sort of social commentary on the role-playing that most black people do just to get through the working day; essentially a reference DuBois’ double consciousness, which certainly is evident throughout the film. But he also added in the article that, the film works on many levels, which was in part what made it harder to convince Hollywood to take it on: “We went to every distributor in the business, and there was one sentence they used over and over–they didn’t know how to market it. They’d never seen anything like it before,” said Harris. He found some of that confusion in the reviews he received as well. “Some critics were saying that my film wasn’t like ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and it wasn’t like ’48 Hours,’ and because it didn’t fit into either of those categories, it didn’t deserve to exist,” he added. “I’ve screened this film all over the world now, and the response has always been great… The audience is light-years beyond so many critics – not to mention Hollywood.”
And I say Amen to that!
In watching this film, I was almost immediately reminded of another film about a black con man, who pulls off some near perfect cons of the white-collar variety. And that film was “6 Degrees of Separation,” starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, based on a play by the same name, about a charismatic young gay black man who cons his way into the homes of several of New York’s elite citizens – all of them white – using, much like Douglas street, a lot of charm, smarts, a well-informed mind, and with a little luck on his side, as well as, again, the gullibility of his victims, who let him roam free in their houses, gave him money, fed him, etc… His con was a different kind of con, than we see in “Chameleon Street,” but it was a con nonetheles, and one that was, once again, driven by his need for survival, just like Douglas Street. I thought I should at least mention it as a sister-viewing to “Chameleon Street,” if you feel so inclined.
However, I’ll say that “Six Degrees” is certainly not a “black film,” as it’s not really about Will Smith’s character, as much as it is about the Kitterages, the art dealer couple played by Channing and Sutherland, who realize the inadequacies in their individual lives and their life together, thanks in great part to the intrusion, albeit under false pretenses, of the character played by Will Smith, who claims to be Sydney Poitier’s son, and convinces them of this with his vast knowledge of art, music, food, film, and life in general, all of which he actually learned with the help of a young white gay Harvard student, who picks him up one night and brings him into his apartment, and makes him a project, for his own sake. He teaches him how to talk like the white elite, how to dress, cook, walk; he feeds him information on a variety of subjects, including information on the couples he cons, and then he sort of sets him loose into the world, to cause havoc; and he does cause some havoc, but in the end, he plays the role that we’ve seen played by black men over and over, and actually by Will Smith in a later film, “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” – the stereotype of course I am referring to is that of the magical negro, who helps the white folks around with his magical “healing” powers to see the light, to grow, to get over some obstacle, etc. So while I don’t strongly recommended “Six Degrees,” I think it’s a companion film of sorts, for “Chameleon street,” and I think it’s probably one of Will Smith’s best performances ever. It was a complex role which I think he did a decent job with; not a great job as maybe a Jeffrey Wright would have given us, but considering Will Smith’s resume, it was one of his better performances, for whatever that’s worth.
And another film “Chameleon Street” makes me think of is “Bone,” the first film from filmmaker Larry Cohen, which stars a young Yaphet Kotto (of “Homicide” fame) as a thief who breaks into the home of a wealthy, happily married Beverly Hills couple, but soon breaks through the couple’s facade, and exposes the real unhappiness that exists in their marriage. So again, another magical Negro type of performance, and not like William Douglas Street. But still, you should check these films out, because it’s information despite the content.
Overall, I found “Chameleon Street” to be an interesting and worth-watching film, if you can overlook some of it’s technical inadequacies, as well as some of its content and portrayal flaws. I think it’s a film everyone should see. It’s now available on DVD.
Thank you for reading!