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This week's repertory pick is the coolly literate indie drama Chameleon Street (1989), which screens this Thursday, September 4, 7 PM, at Chatham 14, 210 W. 87st St., 773-783-8711. Winner of a Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance film festival, the movie has been revived around town occasionally and recently won a DVD release from Image Entertainment. But this screening comes with an added treat: an appearance by Wendell B. Harris Jr., the movie's brainy writer, director, and star.
Chameleon Street is based on the life of William Douglas Street, a Detroit con man who pulled off a series of impersonations in the 70s and 80s. An early scene shows Street arguing with a coworker in the cab of their delivery truck about the ways black people alter their appearance and behavior to mesh with the white world. The conversation clearly frames the movie's trenchant vision of African-American life: when Street passes himself off as a reporter for Time magazine, an exchange student at Yale, a surgeon, and a human rights attorney, he's only indulging in a more pathological version of the masquerade some blacks endure for much of their lives.
Onscreen Harris often positions himself in the frame so that his face is cloaked in shadow, which not only becomes an effective visual motif for his chameleonic hero but also serves as an ironic summary of his career since then. As Harris explains in an interview with Cinemad, his triumph at Sundance led to a series of Hollywood production deals that never panned out. The industry was less interested in distributing Chameleon Street than in remaking it with a bankable star (Sinbad, Wesley Snipes, Will Smith) and a more mainstream point of view. Eventually Harris moved back home, and since 1993 he's been working on another independent project, a sci-fi epic called Arbiter Roswell. Perhaps the recent rediscovery of Chameleon Street will bring him out of the shadows once and for all.