Wendell B. Harris, Jr. has made only one film. It's Chameleon Street. It's mostly forgotten but it made something of a splash in Sundance 1990, where it claimed the Grand Jury Prize. That success, however, marked, much to Harris's frustration, his peak. He made an appearance in Steven Soderbergh's 1998 Out of Sight, and two years later, exited a decade in the film world by way of the very white and bad "road sex comedy" Road Trip.
It's not an accident that Harris's masterpiece Chameleon Street has been restored and is being reevaluated in the presence of 2021. This film, which is based on the life of a Detroit man, William Douglas Street, Jr., known as the "Chameleon" "The Great Impersonator" (he convincingly impersonated doctors, lawyers, reporters, and so on), is radically independent. Though the film didn't come out of a vacuum (there was before it Orson Welles's F for Fake and Woody Allen's Zelig), it certainly redirected the previous experiments of the chameleon character to a future that we only now can recognize in the experimental and super-real and culture-scrambling works of Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, and HBO's Random Acts of Flyness), Donald Glover (Atlanta), and Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You). But these new and hip black filmmakers have yet to go as far into blackness as Chameleon Street, and here is why.
What Harris introduced in his time, which was part of a new movement of black indie filmmakers that included Spike Lee, Julie Dash, and Charles Burnett, was black impotence. This is the aspect of Chameleon Street that's hard to appreciate. The lead character, Douglas Street, played by the director and writer of the film, Harris, has what in the 1970s was called "black rage", but he understands that the person he is, and the society he is in, and the people he impersonates, and the people who are close to him (parents, wife, child), are somehow all entangled in this massive cultural mess that's historically specific. And this is the point where the entanglement of quantum physics is a much more useful metaphor for blackness than that afrofuturist capture of cosmology's dark matter. (The black astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein discusses the limits of the latter metaphor in her important book The Disordered Cosmos.)
Douglas Street lives in a racist society; he also feels the pressure to "make money," the unit of social significance in a black-and-white capitalist society. He does not impersonate losers, but the winners of the culture that prizes above all the command one has over the universal equivalent, the equalizer that makes us unequal. But Street knows he is at once a part of society and its enemy, and so attacking it is also attacking who he is and why he impersonates the lives of the rich and famous.
Some critics, such as the New Yorker's Richard Brody, have read this impotence as representing a kind of restraint that's optimal for black survival. Whites have the power, blacks have none. In a society of abstract equals, real power is decisive. In a number of the film's humiliating scenes with racists, Street, according to Brody, "prudently [inhibits] asserting himself". But the source of the black impotence in Chameleon Street, an impotence we do not find in the works of Glover, Nance, and Riley, is he recognizes that attacking whiteness is not meaningful without also attacking blackness. The latter actually constructed the former, and so both are entangled asymmetrically.
Blackness did not posit whiteness. If it had done so, then the problem of dismantling racial structures would be on the side of the whites. But whiteness, in this opposite case, would in the process realize that no blackness means no whiteness. This is what troubles Harris's character and is the source of his radical impotence. Also, Street's wife tells us that Street prematurely ejaculates.
The scene that best captures Street's situation is when he goes to a French-themed costume ball as the Beast from Jean Cocteau's The Beauty and the Beast. He is all black and thick hair, he even has fangs, but he can do nothing but live in the moment. There is no future in the black Beast because he is entangled in the white imagination.
Street says to us at the climax of the French-themed ball:
You and I know you don't know me. So, let's agree to disagree everyone. As far as I'm concerned. Most people have maybe two or three great moments in their entire lives. So get it right? If the moment calls, give me the phone. If the moment drops by tonight, show him in and make him comfortable, set them up in the easy, check in my cup of coffee, because I am definitely into the moment.
Chameleon Street screens at Northwest Film Forum from Wednesday, Dec 8 to Sunday, Dec 12.