Wendell B. Harris, Jr.'s debut feature, Chameleon Street, won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival over the likes of Metropolitan and The Unbelievable Truth, but the movie never got wide distribution, and it drew a mixed reaction from critics and audiences wherever it did play. In the 17 years since, Chameleon Street's reputation has grown, thanks to writers like Armond White, who've used Harris' commercial washout as an example of how critics and arthouse distributors sometimes fail great movies. The film is now receiving its long-overdue DVD debut, with a lot of curious cinephiles expecting the second coming of Citizen Kane.
The movie isn't that good, though it definitely deserved a better fate. Breezy and invigorating, Chameleon Street romps through the reportedly true story of William Douglas Street, Jr. (played by Harris), an African-American con artist who in the early '80s impersonated a doctor, a reporter, a scholar, and a lawyer, between stints in prison. Harris uses his low budget well, keeping the setups simple and adding nuance through unexpected edits and insert shots that puckishly reflect a born impostor's fragmented mindset. But in style and execution, Chameleon Street shows a talent in the rough, not a master at work. Harris' dry tone and his blunt staging of Street's interactions with the white world sometimes prove hilarious, and sometimes off-key. (It hurts that not everyone in the cast is as accomplished an actor as Harris.)
Still, the movie's message stings. Harris contrasts Street's complex real-life self—a voracious reader with eclectic taste in music and film—and the person he makes himself into around others. "I know within two minutes who they want me to be," Street says, as he suckers establishment types by playing on their fear of looking unhip or racist. The movie's key image comes toward the end, as Street dons a mask and holds a toy knife against his daughter's throat, as part of a "game" that seems eerily like his everyday life.
Key features: A spirited commentary track with White and Michael Reiter, and an engaging short film derived from a Chameleon Street audition.