Mind Blowing Movie: Chameleon Street

Mm200Last week, Boing Boing presented a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. We are extending the series for several additional days. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series. — Mark

[Video Link] "The film you are about to see and hear is based on the life experiences of William Douglas Street, Jr. and Erik Dupin. Many of the characters appear as themselves, while others assume fictional personae."

Chameleon Street is a movie that blew my mind even before I saw it, and then once more when finally, after nearly a decade without a theatrical run, it was finally released on video.

What do I mean by that? In the early '90s, I was a teenager making a VHS tape of a short-lived news magazine TV show called Edge one evening, which happened to feature a curious story about a Sundance Jury Prizewinning film which, oddly, could not get a distributor to release it. There was no graphic content. It wasn't inaccessibly "arty," indeed it was very plainspoken. The root of the problem, the show explained, was that the plain speaking — even if elegantly-worded — was delivered by a very sharp-witted black guy. Wendell B. Harris Jr. not only wrote and directed, but he actually spoke every nuanced piece of dialog into the camera as the lead actor portraying Doug Street; who, more incredibly, was a real guy. From Wikipedia:

Chameleon Street is a 1989 independent film written, directed by and starring Wendell B. Harris, Jr.. It tells the story of a social chameleon who impersonates reporters, doctors and lawyers in order to make money.

The film is a satire based on the life of Detroit con artist and high school drop-out William Douglas Street, Jr., who successfully impersonated professional reporters, lawyers, athletes, extortionists, and surgeons, going so far as to perform more than 36 successful hysterectomies. A Sundance Film Festival press release in 2008 described it as "one of the first films to examine how mellifluously race, class, and role-playing morph into the social fabric of America." Chameleon Street won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.

The show went on to interview fellow prizewinner Steven Soderbergh, who said "I'd never seen a film like it," and Harris himself, who explained that in order to get it picked up, a company wanted to re-make the whole thing starring budding actor Will Smith; which, if they had gone through with it would have made Chameleon Street the first movie to be re-made in its native language in order to receive distribution. The show's interviews were interspersed with many clips including this one,which, frankly, blew my mind.

I soon went off to college where I served on my school's film committee for two years, where I pored through every distribution catalog and made calls looking for Chameleon Street, to no avail. Around that time, in 1994, I showed some friends the VHS tape in my dorm room. And that, I assumed, was that. Three or four years later, I got an excited phone call from my homie Camille: the video store on Chapman Highway had a copy! She was trying to convey the rush of ideas she'd just seen into a jumble of quotations and comments on editing techniques, particularly the pot dealer whose line "do you want to make some money!" was looped several times. At the time of it's 1989 release, this would have been an early example of what we would probably now consider a "hip-hop" type of an edit, but which was then either a first of an "early-adopter" type of thing. It was still fucking fresh as hell when I finally rushed over to the shop, rented and absorbed this film nearly a decade after its completion.