I think, therefore I scam.
I think back to when someone was buttonholing Miles Davis about what Bitches Brew was supposed to be (jazz? rock? experimental?) and he replied, simply, “Music.” Chameleon Street is a movie. It isn’t merely a “black movie” or an “independent movie” or a “comedy”, all of which are easy pigeonholes into which you could stick a movie like this. Yes, it was made by and primarily stars black actors; yes, it was independently-financed and -released; yes, it is riotously funny. But there’s another element to it all—the “stinging salt of recklessness”, to use someone else’s words, that makes it a category-breaker.
The “chameleon” of the title is William Douglas Street, based loosely on a real-life conman of the same name whose exploits played like Frank Abnegale, Jr. filtered through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Street’s a smart guy—entirely too smart for the ennui of his dad’s burglar-alarm business, but also too arrogant to look for a “straight” replacement. Everyone around him, from his bar buddies to his wife, muse about big money and big payoffs, and before long he starts hatching a couple of ways to fleece the unsuspecting. What he doesn’t expect to discover is how unsuspecting most everyone is, as a rule. Man wishes to be deceived; therefore, deceive him, and laugh all the way to the bank.
At first Street gets his feet wet with basic stuff—hustling grass, or participating in a whacked-out attempt to blackmail a local Michigan celebrity. It doesn’t work, and he ends up on prime-time TV admitting that he really only did it for the money. Even if the scam itself is a washout, he realizes two things. One, he rather likes this business of pretending to be something he’s not. Two, there’s a sucker born every minute and two to take him. And so he concocts another ripoff, where he pretends to be a journalist from Time so that he can interview a female basketball star (the better to get into her panties, most likely), but is unmasked when the woman’s sister spots a typo in his cover letter. It’s everyone else who’s the problem, not him, as he confides to us in the movie’s perversely funny voice-overs.
He graduates up the con artist food chain and poses as a doctor. It works for a while, but then he has to perform surgery—a hysterectomy, no less, which ties nicely into Street’s general ambivalence and contempt for women. The resulting scene is all the more excruciating to watch since the operation itself is almost entirely off-camera. It doesn’t help that he actually pulls it off—the real Street did, too, not just once but repeatedly—since he’s sent to prison anyway. And the ultimate irony of being in prison is that it has the same effect of him as it does other minor criminals: it makes him into an even better criminal.
Or, rather, in his case, a better liar. Street gets good enough with his put-ons to fake mental illness and get transferred to a psych ward, even if the doctor there sees right through him. It’s that much less security for him to sneak away from, and he runs off and heads for Yale where he steals a student’s ID and uses the library to book up on his French. But there’s still a few people out there he can’t fool—his wife, for one—and his attempts to please her (and his daughter) by shutting them up make for some of the movie’s funniest and most painful scenes, both at once. By the last quarter of the movie she’s grown so inured to his attention-getting antics that she doesn’t even blink when she finds Street chasing their little girl around their house with a knife that spurts fake blood.
The movie’s meditations on race and class and sex are really a way to meditate on the dilemma of personality, since the latter expresses itself through all of those things. Street’s bored because there’s nobody at home inside his skin, but as he finds out, that’s not a problem if you’re willing to shuck off little things like morality or conscience. “I give people what they want,” he tells his prison doctor. “When I meet someone, I know within the first two minutes what they want me to be.” He plays the game equally well with fellow criminals and the innocent alike. The white guys can be duped by playing on either their racism or their nascent liberal guilt; his fellow brothers can be conned just as easily. They’re all fair game.
Street is played by Wendell B. Harris, Jr., who also wrote and directed the film, and should have gone on to a career something like Steven Soderbergh’s or Spike Lee’s (especially since Street was a 1990 Sundance Festival prizewinner). It’s fearless and adventurous filmmaking, not just for the subject matter but the anarchic way it’s put on screen. Video, film and stop-motion animation intermix; the chronology’s tugged in all directions with flashbacks and flash-forwards; it’s uninhibited and shameless in its freedom with moviemaking as a medium. I laughed at least as much as the movie’s own nudges in the ribs to the audience as I did anything taking place onscreen.
I am just old enough to personally remember when independent cinema in the U.S. meant risk-taking in the least romantic sense of the term. It was difficult enough to get indie movies financed and made, and even more difficult to get them marketed and released. And yet it was also still possible for such films to build their own audiences through word-of-mouth and positive newspaper and TV reviews, to sustain months-long runs in theaters (months!) as preludes to becoming solid, perennial rental and sales items on home video a decade later. My Dinner With Andre, The Brother From Another Planet, El Norte all came out of this scene. Chameleon Street didn’t garner the same lines-around-the-block cult aura when it was released, but it sure deserved it. It still does.
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