A long-gestating doc is on the way, but 1989’s Chameleon Street—screening tonight and Thursday at BAM as part of Contraband Cinema, with director Q&As both nights—is Wendell B. Harris Jr’s only completed feature. The system has snuffed subsequent efforts, but instead of decrying that, celebrate the masterpiece he already managed—winner of Sundance 1990 (it beat Metropolitan). His movie follows the true exploits of conman Douglas Street, who fakes being, among other personae, a lawyer, reporter, and Detroit Tiger. Pressured by a girlfriend to become a doctor, he forges a Harvard Med degree and is welcomed to the staff by an ingenuous leader humbled to have a Harvard man onboard. Street, with a medical guide handily stuffed into his pants, proceeds to perform hysterectomies with surprising success.
Harris Jr.s film similarly penetrates the basic performance of existence, as a black male and beyond. The director stars, and his achievement here echoes early De Palma, Melvin Van Peebles, and Robert Downey Sr. at his fiercest. Stuck working for his father’s Detroit burglar alarm company at the movie’s beginning, Street is a stifled aesthete who wears Bauhaus shirts, listens to Vivaldi and Hendrix, watches Cocteau films, and quotes “the divine Oscar”‘s epigrams. He attempts to escape drudgery by simply pretending to be something more. “I think therefore I scam” becomes his motto, though the chameleon street is rocky at first—in a pitch to Time Magazine, he misspells the word “write” (“I would like to wright…”).
The filmmaking can be sloppy (flubbed lines, heart-shaped iris-outs), and none of Harris Jr.’s costars are near his preternatural level, but these are excused by the sheer wealth of the film and lead’s magnetism. The screenplay is so clever that a line like, “This marriage has gone sour—sour like cottage cheese gone bad” is a joke on the reaching quality of most similes.
From Tootsie and Zelig to Soul Man and White Chicks, “faking it” has been well worn by the movies, so it takes an original like Harris Jr. to try a new angle. Chameleon Street has the insouciance of the similarly themed Catch Me If You Can, but its budget-necessitated wiseass, clever style, and the beguiling charisma of Harris Jr., makes the viewer complicit in a fun way that Spielberg’s spectacle never attempts. Not that it’s all fun—Street’s identity-shifting destroys his earnest attempts at love, and his pretentious literacy gets him flattened at a restaurant. His compulsion to fake is based in a painful awareness of unfairness, and his high-wire snaps near the end during a bloody living room scene with his daughter that is anything but funny. Clifford Irving was in it for the thrill of the prank. For Harris and Street, there’s more at stake.