Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street ★★★★

“Oh, I wish I could speak French like that.”

I've seen Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight a handful of times and in a knockout top-to-bottom cast, Jenifer Lopez’s boss Daniel always stood out in a cast of who's who. His honey voiced/above it all reading of the line "whatever" with the eye roll and the hands up is just so goddamn perfect. Anyway, Daniel is played by Wendell B. Harris, Jr. and Soderbergh hired him because the year after sex, lies, and videotape changed the Sundance Film Festival forever, Soderbergh served on the Jury the following year and awarded Harris the Grand Prize for Chameleon Street, a film that Harris wrote, directed, starred in and produced, and also that Hollywood completely screwed him over with right after Soderbergh’s prize should’ve set the groundwork for a major career.

You see, this micro-budget film, has a Hollywood story right there: the true story of a black ex-con (Harris) who successfully passed himself off as a Detroit Tiger, a doctor, a French graduate student, and a lawyer, and even performed successful surgeries that he learned on the fly. Hollywood had a leading man remake in mind when it was purchased, it wasn’t purchased to show on its own. The film that they bought, and didn’t release, was shot like an industrial film and uses narration to fill in the gaps (but also hit you with some belly laughs). Chameleon Street lacks standard pizazz, but has an angry undercurrent on how black men have to adopt personas in order to get respect and/or equal opportunity. (Did I mention it's funny?)

Chameleon Street is quite a feat to watch today, and we're benefited by watching the 90s independent film movement unfold, as it shares some look and tone of other indie gods like Hal Hartley and Gregg Araki. But Harris beat them to the punch and suffered for it. Warner Brothers had no intention of releasing his film, just remaking it, and so the film languished in obscurity, the prize-winning videotape that followed sex, lies, and videotape that was gobbled up by lies and never saw actual distribution until Harris released it on home video in 2007. (A remake was never done either, though Six Degrees of Separation shares many character similarities and Smith was considered for the remake role.)

Street benefits greatly from Harris' voice, which stood out in Out of Sight, a syrupy tone that moves slowly; and as it moves, it unfurls. First, a hint of education in every word, and second a "fuck you" tucked away to rebut your entranced state. This is a distinctly 1990 Sundance Film in all of the absolute best ways. It's intelligent, it's personal, it's all put together by someone who had no access to Hollywood. And it features a scene where Harris is dressed up like Jean Cocteau's Beast and though he's been found out by a fellow French student that he’s not actually French, he's still in awe of the translated insult that comes his way. Instead of responding incredulously to being labeled a "skinflint transvestite" who should be drinking "lukewarm cat piss," Harris' eyes roll into an orgasmic state behind the Beast mask and he says, "Oh, I wish I could speak French like that.” True indie movie heaven.

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