After watching a series of groan inducing "just why?" films like boiling hot mess "Armored" and the wretched "The Losers", it was quite refreshing to have a film like "Chameleon Street" thrown into the mix. Reader Tafari summed my current Black Cinema thoughts pretty well:
As for myself, the last good black movie I've seen since the fall of 2009 was Precious. Since then nothing good has been released. Thought about seeing the Funeral movie but decided to see Kick Ass instead and it was fucking AWESOME. So happy I followed my guts on that one!
Outside of Kick Ass, the only movie that I've seen since Precious and Avatar that I like/loved was Shutter Island. Everything else has been a total mess making me want my money back still.
What's a movie buff to do?
For reals! Now Chameleon Street isn't as much of a flashback as the others are in this series, since it was released in 1989, but it very much has the feel and tone of a Black film from the 70's. The difference is that instead of the foot to ass, get "the man" through violence films of the 70's, the main character uses his wits and resources to get by and through "the man".
It is the story of William Douglas Street, played by Wendell B. Harris Jr. (yes, he uses his full name at all times, lol) who, motivated by chasing the almighty dollar, finds himself assuming a number of different identities; surgeon, Yale student, a "Time" news reporter--all falsely assumed but accepted by everyone nonetheless. Everyone except his one weak spot and kryptonite, his self-involved wife. Though from humble beginnings, he is intelligent, has a razor sharp wit with a ton of charisma, and absolutely no time to suffer fools easily. This enables him to make the transitions, from jailbird to ultimately a political and social activist and everything in between, with ease.
While the budget limitations are obvious, and the transitions from one identity to the next can be a bit rough, I saw what the star/director was trying to do. It wasn't so much about the plot itself exactly, but was really more like a scathing observation of the hypocrisy and ignorance of America, and YT's ridiculous assumptions about Blacks and appearances. It also deftly handles the microcosms of Black male female relationships, and how difficult it can be to dedicate yourself to just one person. He had a lot to say, and he said it in this film....the narration is killer.
I have mostly seen Black men rave about this film--it seems to really resonate with them on some level for some reason. But this is what you would call a thinking person's movie; you can't just view it as is, you must see between the lines. It moves at a swift pace, and there are no spots in the film where nothing is happening, so you gotta pay attention. I recommend viewing with zero distractions, and zero expectations, and this movie will be thought about days afterward.
Read this in an article: "Instead of distributing the original film, studios wanted to make new versions with various actors. Harris remembers, “Each time it was given to a different person, it was given a different ambiance. For Wesley Snipes, it was changed into a kind of car chase movie. For Sinbad, it was changed into a kind of goof-ball character. For Arsenio, it was a hybrid of the two.” Will Smith also wanted to remake it, and has twice redone a scene from Chameleon Street where Harris solves a rubik’s cube to impress an employer."* Typical!!!
Also read this: "Harris shopped around many ideas in the 90s, including Negropolis, a version of ancient Rome where the emperor and ruling elite are all black and all the slaves are white. Roles were written for Oprah Winfrey as Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and Cosmetology, Howard Stern as Alexander the Great and Harris as Canigula – Caligula with a ‘N.’"* Now that is a movie I wanna see!
Wendell B. Harris, Jr. is working on a sci-fi project as of late; I know that you readers have expressed multiple times how there is such a huge need for that in Black film. As such, whenever you hear or come into contact with his project, please do whatever you can to support!
Could not find a trailer, so here is a scene from Chameleon Street:
Some comments from Harris, and a scene from the film about "good hair":