'Chameleon Street': stunning first effort

August 05, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

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.

It's an almost unbelievable tale that Harris tells with panache and wit and with sympathy that does not shy away from judgment. The screenplay is sophisticated and -- once Street actually begins his life of deception -- compelling. There is a confrontation between Street and a redneck bully in a bar that turns into a brilliant disquisition on the proper usage of the most commonly used four-letter word in the English language. Many of the scenes -- such as Street's first operation (he performs a hysterectomy) or one in which he uses his "French" to snow some impressionable female undergraduates -- are alternately thrilling or amusing. The film suggests -- it never hectors or

lectures the audience -- that there may something wrong with society when a man as talented as Street plays at (but does not become) the men he'd like to be. But that subtext never diminishes Street's responsibility for his behavior. In "Chameleon Street" -- as in almost all first-rate drama -- character is destiny.

'Chameleon Street'

Starring Wendell B. Harris Jr., Angela Leslie and Amina Fakir.

Directed by Wendell B. Harris Jr.

Released by Northern Arts Entertainment Inc.



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