Entertainment

'Chameleon Street' Is a Treasure of Black Cinema That Was Almost Lost Forever

'Chameleon Street' won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990 and then disappeared. Now, it's finally getting the recognition it deserves.

Arbelos Films
Arbelos Films
Arbelos Films

In 1990, Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s debut feature Chameleon Street won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, only to disappear soon after, never achieving proper theatrical distribution. But now, a restoration of the film is receiving a theatrical release at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and will have a run of showings around the world, finally receiving the attention it deserves. (It’s also available to buy on Amazon Prime.) As a Black critic watching Chameleon Street in 2021, it’s upsetting to think about such an essential piece of Black cinema being ignored for so long.

If Harris’s film had been released today, it would most certainly be lauded, with distribution from a studio like A24 or Neon. Though it would be unlikely to win come awards season, it’s the kind of film guaranteed to become a critical darling. And yet, considering its subject matter, aesthetic, and execution, it’s easy to understand why distributors were confused or even put off by the film. Despite premiering in at the beginning of the ’90s, Chameleon Street feels like it belongs in the ’70s or early ’80s, when the likes of Kathleen Collins, Billy Woodberry, Charles Burnett and Bill Gunn were analyzing Blackness from a quieter philosophical point of view. Unlike his contemporaries, Harris had little interest in depicting the grit of modern American life. His focus is squarely on the old promise of the American Dream and one Black man’s obsession with attaining it.

Chameleon Street is a unique and haunting film, combining elements of biography, drama, and psychological thriller to paint a disturbing portrait of a man relentlessly reinventing himself. It tells the story of William Douglas Street, Jr. an enigmatic Black con man from Detroit with a thirst for wealth, women, and prestige. Street is played by the film’s director and screenwriter Harris in a performance that feels eerily personal, far beyond imitation. Instead of the glossy trappings found in any standard Hollywood biopic, Harris forced us to wallow in the ugliness of a man without the catharsis of traditional morality. Street feels no remorse for his cons, and Harris has little interest in a conventional narrative arc that would force that realization. He drops us into Street’s mind and leaves us there to witness him concocting scheme after scheme with no intervention from family or friends. Though he always gets caught, Street’s superiority complex remains intact. He is never deterred, only momentarily inconvenienced in his pursuit of the finer things in life.Guided by his voiceover, we follow Street through the ’70s and early ’80s, covering various schemes, romantic relationships and eventually, incarceration. It’s a story fully at the mercy of its unreliable narrator, with all the obvious gaps his authority desires. Street has to have control in every situation and achieves this by withholding. He keeps his feelings, frustrations and desires close to the chest, confiding in no one, never asking for help and refusing to show weakness. His mind rambles-mainly about money, women, and the struggles of being a Black man in America-but it’s difficult to tell what he’s passionate about, beyond the satisfaction of outsmarting everyone around him. The only explanation given for Street’s behavior is in the opening, where a psychologist describes him as a “complementary” that “intuits what another person needs.” As he speaks, Street’s inner monologue intrudes, eventually providing an ominous rhyme delivered in a frightening, pulsating tone over the opening title card: “I think therefore I scam. I think the air is sweet. I know not what I am. I am Chameleon Street.”

With these words, Harris reveals the intention of his film-to show us the portrait of a man shaped by the conditions of American capitalism and exacerbated by the anti-Black racism it’s built on. Street is a chameleon, mimicking the remorseless greed, blind ambition, and merciless dehumanization that characterizes his environment. Despise his obvious sociopathy, in his head, Street fancies himself a gentleman and romantic. But in reality he seems to enjoy women only for their looks and sexual skill, with little interest in their interior lives. Both his second wife Gabrielle and paramour Tatiana are introduced as gorgeous and intelligent, but over time his admiration for them gives way to resentment. Street feels the pressure to provide for them, often silently blaming them for his schemes. And when the women speak for themselves, they provide no counterpoint to his point of view-most of their dialogue revolves around money, and they never seem to notice that Street never seems fully there. Despite this casual misogyny, Street has no trouble maintaining relationships with them, deploying his calculated charms whenever necessary. He’s cunning enough to keep his most disdainful thoughts to himself, while presenting the exterior image of a respectful, cultured modern man. Harris presents these women as Street sees them: as easy marks with little agency.

While watching Chameleon Street, only one other film came to mind: 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation, which tells the story of another Black male con artist who began scamming in the ’80s not long after Street. The film, adapted from the 1990 play of the same name, was inspired by the exploits of David Hampton who tricked several wealthy white people into believing he was the son of Sidney Portier. The film features Will Smith as the charming scammer, renamed Paul, with Stockhard Channing and Donald Sutherland as his primary marks. The story is told from their perspective, presenting Paul as an honest, dashing young man before slowly revealing his true nature. We are never treated to Paul’s inner workings, leaving him a curious enigma.

In refreshing contrast, Harris never feels the need to humanize the people Street manipulates. Trapped in his mind, we can only cringe with disgust at his actions or surrender and revel in his depravity. There is no escape from his cold, condescending gaze or the rage that hides just behind his eyes. In the end, Chameleon Street is a horror film about the kind of monster who hides in plain sight, blending in perfectly with the society that made him.

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Jourdain Searles is a contributor to Thrillist.

Entertainment

Where to Celebrate Lunar New Year 2023 in Australia

And what it means to be in the year of the Rabbit.

where to celebrate lunar new year australia

Starting with the new moon on Sunday, January 22, this Lunar New Year ushers in the year of the Rabbit. We’ve put together a guide on celebrating the Lunar New Year in Australia.

What is special about the year of the Rabbit?

As you might know, each year has an animal sign in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the moon and has a 12-year cycle. This year, we celebrate the year of the rabbit, known to be the luckiest out of all twelve animals. It symbolises mercy, elegance, and beauty.

What celebrations are taking place and how can I get involved?

There are plenty of festivals happening all around the country which you can get involved with. Here they are per state.

New South Wales

Darling Harbour Fireworks
When: Every year, Sydney puts on a fireworks show, and this year, you can catch it on January 28 and February 4 at 9 pm in Darling Harbour.

Dragon Boat Races
When: Witness three days of dragon boat races and entertainment on Cockle Bay to usher in the Lunar New Year. The races will commence on January 27 and finish on January 29.

Lion Dances
When: Catch a traditional Lion Dance moving to the beat of a vigorous drum bringing good luck and fortune for the Lunar New Year. The dance performances will happen across Darling Harbour on Saturday, January 21, Sunday, January 22, and Sunday, February 4 and 5, around 6 pm and 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at Cirrus Dining
When: Barangaroo’s waterfront seafood restaurant, Cirrus, is celebrating the Year of the Rabbit with a special feast menu. Cirrus’ LNY menu is $128pp with optional wine pairing and is available from Saturday, January 21, to Sunday, February 5.

Auntie Philter
When: Hello Auntie’s owner and executive chef, Cuong Nguyen will be dishing out some of the most classic Vietnamese street foods with his mum, Linda. All of Philter’s favourites will be on offer, as well as Raspberry Pash Beer Slushies and other cocktails being served at the Philter Brewing rooftop bar on Sunday, January 22 and Sunday, January 29.

Victoria

Lunar New Year Festival
When: Ring in the Lunar New Year with food, music, arts, and more on Sunday, January 22, from 10 am to 9 pm.

Lunar New Year at the National Gallery of Victoria
When: Celebrate the year of the rabbit at the National Gallery of Victoria’s festival of art, food, and art-making activities for everyone from 10 am-5 pm.

Queensland

BriAsia Festival
When: From February 1-19, Brisbane will come alive with performances, including lion dances and martial arts displays. There will be street food, workshops, comedy and more.

South Australia

Chinatown Adelaide Street Party
When: Adelaide is set to hose a fun-filled day celebrating the Chinese New Year on Saturday, January 28, from 12 pm to 9 pm.

Western Australia

Crown Perth
When: Across January and February, Crown Perth hosts free live entertainment, including colourful lion dances, roving mascots, and drumming performances. The restaurants will also throw banquets and menus dedicated to the Lunar New Year.

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