If you've been reading about the flowering of African-American cinema, you probably haven't heard of Wendell Harris Jr.'s "Chameleon Street." That's because Harris' movie, which will be screened today and tomorrow at the Charles, isn't a commercial release with a big advertising budget.
The film was financed by his family and friends in Detroit, and it's filled with the flaws -- camera work that doesn't flow and awkward jumps in the narrative -- one often finds in low-budget work by a first-time director. But it's a shame that Harris couldn't have ridden on the coattails of some of his better-known but lesser brothers: "Chameleon Street" is provoking, intelligent, literate and peopled by real human beings. No wonder it won the Grand Prize at the 1990 United States Film Festival in Sundance.
"Chameleon Street" -- which was written and directed by Harris (andin which he also stars) -- tells the remarkable true story of William Douglas Street. Street, who barely graduated from high school, successively passed himself off as a Time magazine reporter (although he could not spell "writer"), a Harvard-trained surgeon (who performed 23 successful operations), an exchange student from French-speaking Martinique at Yale University (although he could not speak a word of French) and a lawyer whose work for the Detroit Civil Rights Commission much impressed Mayor Coleman Young. Street was a chameleon with an uncanny knack of becoming what people wanted him to be.