Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street ★★★★½

A legendary work in black indie cinema—for the few who have even heard of it. It famously failed to find distribution after winning a jury prize at Sundance, even though Warner Bros bought the remake rights for $250,000. Director Wendell Harris claims that though it was initially shown on television regularly, further broadcasts were actively suppressed after 1994. Apparently it was too confrontational for any major studio or network to touch.

It's a major loss, because this film is awesome. It's based on the true story of William Douglas Street, a Detroit con man who faked his way from job to job—lawyer, reporter, attorney, celebrity athlete, doctor. It's widely reported that he performed 36 successful hysterectomies, but after digging through the sources, I'm suspicious of that figure. It might be some myth-making by Harris.

Which would be fitting, because the film itself is doing some method-acting—it gets lost in the grift. It's constantly shifting and transforming, impossible to pin down. Each new scene promises some new kind of experimental filmmaking. Somehow, it's all held together by Harris's rich baritone narration (truly a voice made for radio) delivering remarks that are at turns caustic, witty, inscrutable, profound, disturbed. He sees through your bullshit, although he gets lost in his own as well.

It's all about code-switching, the absurdity of getting ahead in a white-governed world using the white rulebook. But though race is at the core of this movie, it doesn't spell it out in the narrative. Rather, it's all in the attitude, the way Street's sharp tongue tears down the facade, the way he dresses down "you wily Caucasians." The way the camera looks deep into their pores.

There are so many neat moments and poetic touches. In that way, I think this movie is really similar to John Paisz's Crimewave, another undistributed lost indie gem about creation and imagination that's engaged in an constant act of reinvention. The only problem I have with Chameleon Street is the main character's "I hate my wife" boomer misogyny, but even that leads to some delightful moments, like him chasing his daughter around the table with a knife. Shocking, scary, yet kinda hilarious.

Street pretending to be a French intellectual: "J'accuse. J'accuse Jacques Brel. J'accuse Jacques Costeau. J'accuse Jacques Strap. J'accuse Jacuzzi."

The train flash edits. Swirling coffee. Soaring camera through a hospital corridor as a conductor voice announces "next stop: Uterus." Delirious masquerade ball. A champagne glass gingerly poured into the Beast's mouth. Spray painting barbie black. That crazy closing credit telling of the scorpion and the frog.

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