‘Chameleon Street’: Wendell B. Harris on His Long-‘Suppressed’ Sundance Winner and His Lost Hollywood Years
When Wendell B. Harris Jr . made his first — and, even three decades on, still only — film, “ Chameleon Street ,” he offered up a scrappy and brilliant debut venture. Based on the incredible true story of Black con artist William Douglas Street, Jr., a man of high intelligence but little formal education, the film follows its genius con man (played by Harris himself) as he sneaks into Yale, pretends to be a French foreign-exchange student, lands a job with “Time,” works as a lawyer, and even performs a stunning number of operations as a surgeon, before eventually being caught.
A witty and sardonic tale of a master impersonator with invigorating and humorous results, Harris served as the writer, director, sarcastic narrator, and star of “Chameleon Street.” The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989, where it took the Grand Jury Prize. And yet Harris’ career never followed the expected path of other lauded breakout filmmakers, and while he spent a few years in Hollywood trying to get other projects off the ground, he has not made another film since.
“Chameleon Street” was largely unavailable for years, beyond a pair of now-out-of-print home releases, including a VHS and a DVD edition. “Chameleon Street” has now been restored in 4K from the original camera negative, all under the supervision of Harris himself. Earlier this month, the restoration screened at the New York Film Festival, and it will now begin a limited theatrical run, kicking off at BAM Cinemas on Friday, October 22.
In advance of the film’s new release, Harris spoke to IndieWire about how the restoration came together, long-simmering rumors of remakes and sequels, what happened after he moved to Hollywood after his big Sundance win, why he believes the film was suppressed from wider release, and how the film’s own subject reacted to the film.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: Was this restoration something that you were seeking out, were you approached, or was it some sort of combination of the two?
Wendell Harris: Definitely a combination of the two. Since the 2007 DVD release by Image Entertainment, several companies had approached me and my company regarding a Blu-ray release. The one that was most attractive came from Arbelos, which we signed in September 2017, one month after the death of my mother.
The film premiered at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize, but never got any sort of large-scale release, correct?
In the spring of 1991, the national release of “Chameleon Street” took place, the distributor being Northern Arts. They were a boutique distributor based in Massachusetts, and we had a national opening that lasted for about four or six weeks. The film trickled around different showcase theaters across the country, and it got great reviews, but it was not like a major release.
There have been numerous rumors about the film over the years, including one that a studio wanted to remake it with Will Smith. What happened there?
Warner Bros. purchased the remake rights in 1990, but not the sequel rights, for like $248,000. Discussions regarding who would play Street in the remake, that began actually in early 1991 and has essentially proceeded throughout the years, and Will Smith was not the very first one that I heard about. But he was among the first — Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, Sinbad, Arsenio Hall. In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk about Keegan-Michael Key, but that is an ongoing, ever-evolving discussion.
Why does it continue to be a discussion, as opposed to someone finally getting it done?
The biggest money that my company ever made was that Warner Bros. sale [for remake rights]. When Warner Bros. paid that quarter of a million dollars, [now] that issue is totally out of my hands. When people have approached me over the last 20 years about possibly doing a mini-series with HBO about “Chameleon Street” or possibly having Keegan-Michael Key in a remake of “Chameleon Street,” I always say, “Great, great go for it, but you’ll have to go to Warner Bros. and talk to them.”
I do have in my contract a clause which gives me associate producer status and some revenue when a deal is made, but I have absolutely nothing to say regarding [a] “Chameleon Street” remake. Warner Bros. owns the remake rights, my company still own sequel rights. Warner Bros. does not own “Chameleon Street” itself, the film that we made. We own all of the rights regarding the theatricals, streaming, whatever, on the film itself.
At least at the time, did you think that was a good deal? Were you content with the deal?
The way this thing plays out, it’s like it unfolds and you don’t know, for example, when you actually stand there at Sundance and take the Grand Jury Prize, you don’t know that you going to be blocked at every juncture. You think just the opposite. Nobody tells you, “Oh, by the way, Wendell, you’re going nowhere in Hollywood.” Period. That is not ever said to you, quite the opposite, they act as if maybe something’s going to happen, but time proceeds and you keep on fighting these battles and skirmishes and conversations on and on.
When something is suppressed like “Chameleon Street,” you don’t get an official notice, “Oh, by the way, Wendell, ‘Chameleon Street’ will not be shown on television anywhere around the world.” You don’t get that.
When the film premiered at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Prize, were you immediately approached by distributors?
No, not at all. We were somewhat surprised. The year before that, “sex, lies and videotape” [was] at Sundance, and I think Steven Soderbergh told me that he got an offer right then and there. So my whole family’s up there a year later with the film, and it wins. I looked at my mom and said, “Hey, Ma, I guess they’ll come over tonight and offer us a distribution deal. That’s what happened to Steven.”
And we did have some people come over that night, but there was not anybody who offered to distribute the film. They were just different types of people from all over the world, but no distributors. So when Warner Bros. offered to buy the film remake rights about eight months or 12 months after Sundance or 12 months, whatever it was, we were hot to trot, gung-ho, let’s take it, because we were still looking for a distributor. But I see that quarter of a million paycheck as a kind of, I don’t know, I don’t know what to call it, but it was like a consolation prize or something.
What happened after your Sundance win?
I changed my expectations and moved out [to Hollywood] for three years. My expectation was not to go to Hollywood, my expectation was to make “Chameleon Street,” have it succeed, go back to Flint, Michigan, produce my next independent film. Instead, I stayed out there trying to make back [money] for my family and investors. And I was taking meetings with everybody like Jane Fonda, Mel Brooks, and Steven Spielberg, and attempting to get a deal going that was going to put me in a place of, if not director/writer, at least writer.
While I was out there working, I’m naturally rubbing elbows with all the people who worked there, all the writers, producers, directors, grips, everybody. What I learned by talking to these people [was] that many of them had been out there for years working and making a paycheck and none of their movies ever got made. My movies were not getting made for other reasons, mainly because my content was anathema to Hollywood.
I would go to people, and say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a satirical comedy called ‘Negropolis.’ It takes place in ancient Rome, except that black people are the upper class, including the Emperors and the ruling class. All the slaves are white.” I would pitch that, and they would look at me like I had defecated on their carpet.
There was a hot minute in 1993, 1994 when Spike Lee was negotiating [to make the film]. He was, at the time, directing “Crooklyn.” Our attorneys had been working together for three or four months on this contract. The day of the signing, I said to my attorney, “Look, I’m ready to sign,” but I asked for a clause that would give me final edit and Spike exploded and killed the deal.
In years past, when I have recommended the film to folks and they watch it, they love it, and they wonder why they’ve never heard of it before. One of the first questions that I get asked is, “Well, what, what happened to him?”
The issue of a Black film director, devising content, that is the highest peak in media. The narrative motion picture is the peak, and it has been kept out of our hands for over a hundred years. So when all of a sudden in the 1960s, Black filmmakers, like Bill Gunn or Ivan Dixon or Melvin Van Peebles, began appearing on the scene, that is another obstacle to overcome. There is the issue of who is in charge of the content, who is actually dictating the images. You and I have been indoctrinated into the entire thug scenario, the entire thug narrative … a drug thug, black monster image, you know, it’s our image being dictated by a hand that has nothing to do with us.
When I was in Hollywood for those first three years, there was this joke that went around town talking about [how] any Black male director can get a deal in Hollywood right now, unless your name is Wendell Harris. The reason that joke was being told is because I was perceived as someone who was not going to be pushed into supporting these modern minstrel Black paradigms.
Recently, studios suddenly seemed to have some kind of lightbulb moment and decided that they’re going to start putting money into Black content, films, and television. What do you think about that?
The monstering of the Black image in media lasted 400 years, from 1620 to 2020. And yes, it has changed. You are now seeing it every five seconds on television. For example, this very close interplay between Blacks and whites, a major taboo for 400 years, now, you can’t turn on the television without seeing Black women with white men, Black men with white women, families.
There is [still] suppression, very rigorous suppression. Until “Chameleon Street” is available everywhere, and until “Gone With the Wind” has a wooden stake pounded into its heart, we may see Black people every five seconds on TV, but who is behind that image?
White people have had a hundred years of being portrayed in media and they have been allowed to be subtle, to be multi-layered, to act from repose. Unless you can go from repose to rant, then you are not going to be three-dimensional. Black people have always been pushed into being some kind of rant. We have not been allowed to act and behave out of repose as whites have for, you know, a hundred years.
Did you ever meet William Douglas Street Jr. in real life?
The short answer is yes. I interviewed Doug Street on video and audiotape, and through letters and phone conversations for essentially three years, repeatedly. That’s the whole point of “Chameleon Street.” I didn’t talk to his mother, I didn’t talk to his kindergarten teacher, or his first girlfriend, or father. I only talked extensively to Doug Street. It’s Doug’s take on what he has done, is doing, why he did it. Whatever is in that film, I did not extrapolate anything.
What did he think of the film?
It’s something that has never been talked about before. Right before Sundance, Doug saw the final edit and he sent my mother, the executive producer, a letter which essentially said that he was extremely appalled and disappointed with the quality of filmmaking and that his only consolation was that the film was so bad he knew nobody would ever see it.
Six or seven months later, whenever that Warner Bros. deal came through, he stopped by my mother’s house in Flint to meet with her to get his check [from the remake sales deal] and, at that time, I don’t know if he apologized, but he was extremely appreciative that it netted him this check.
Looking back on your experiences in Hollywood, is there anything you would change?
If I could go back knowing what I know now, I would not have bothered to spend three years in Hollywood. You are talking to somebody who believes ardently in regret. I watched Johnny Carson off and on for 30 years, and oftentimes, at the end of an interview, he would ask, “Any regrets?” For 30 years, I never heard anybody ever say, “Yes, I had regrets. They always would say, “Nope, I will do it all the same way.” I live in regret. I believe in it. The only thing that I would change, would be… when you actually know that the house is stacked against you, then you don’t really bother going into the house, if you have any sense.
Arbelos will release the 4K restoration of “Chameleon Street” in theaters, beginning with a rollout at BAM Cinemas starting on Friday, October 22.