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‘Chameleon Street’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 31, 1991


Wendell B. Harris Jr.
Wendell B. Harris Jr.
Under 17 restricted

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The story told in "Chameleon Street" is a great one -- so great, in fact, that the extraordinarily poor manner in which it's told can almost be forgiven.

Its fascinating central character is Douglas Street (played by the film's writer-director, Wendell B. Harris Jr.), an ordinary citizen of Detroit who, it seems, is cagey and versatile enough to assume any identity he desires. He's like a black variation on the character Woody Allen created in "Zelig"; he's a hollow man, except that in this case he's mostly a scammer and a con artist, motivated more by economic necessity than by psychological pressure.

Harris's message is clear: He's showing us the contortions a black man must go through to make it in the white man's world. But it's also clear that he sees Douglas as both a hero and a buffoon. At the film's beginning he's broke, depressed and dead bored working for his father's burglar alarm company. Just as he reaches his breaking point, though, he comes up with a scheme to blackmail a hometown athlete, and when the plan blows up in his face (a co-conspirator signs Street's name to the ransom note), becomes a minor media star, hailed for his chutzpah and crazy drive.

But this just a warm-up. Soon his whole life is a scam. Desperate to find some niche for himself (and score a little bread to make his materialistic wife, Gabriella -- played by Angela Leslie -- happy), he first poses as a writer for Time magazine, then, in an even bolder move, becomes a surgical resident at a nearby medical school, prescribing treatment and even, at one point, performing a hysterectomy.

Harris has based his film on a real individual who, it's said, performed hundreds of such operations, and the character is perverse enough to be irresistible. Harris himself is both frustrating and intriguing. His sensibility as a director is lofty and philosophically searching; he thinks conceptually, metaphorically. As an actor he has a very slow pulse, but his mellifluous FM style is magnetic. And hilarious, especially when he attempts to pass himself off as a French exchange student and manages somehow to come off as a combination of Sartre and Barry White.

What we have here is a brilliant concept, but unfortunately, Harris just isn't a filmmaker -- not even in the most rudimentary sense. His failures are all on the most basic level. He can't plot or shape scenes; he can't draw out his actors; he can't write dialogue or mount it; he can't create any consistent rhythms or sense of pace. He can't get out of his own way, and given how automatically we're drawn to his creation, his two-left-footedness is infuriating. He has much of what it takes to be an interesting filmmaker -- sophistication, intelligence, originality and wit. Now all he has to do is learn how to make movies.

"Chameleon Street" is rated R and contains some nudity and adult language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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