Chameleon Street (1989)


(director/writer: Wendell B. Harris Jr.; cinematographer: Daniel S. Noga; editor: Matthew Mallison; music: Peter S. Moore; cast: Wendell B. Harris Jr. (Douglas Street), Angela Leslie (Gabrielle), Amina Fakir (Tatiana), Paula McGee (Herself), Anthony Ennis (Curtis), David Kiley (Dr. Hand), Gary Irwin (Dr. Hardy), Dimitri Muganias (Robespierre), Anita Gordon (Darlene Street), Henry Watkins (Eugene), Mayor Coleman Young (Himself), Dave Barber (Himself), Alfred Bruce Bradley (Smooth); Runtime: 95; Warner Brothers/Northern Arts Entertainment; 1989)

“This troubling biopic, based on the amazing but true story of a black con artist — is a flawed but brilliantly thought provoking adventure in filmmaking.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Chameleon Street won a prize at the Sundance festival. This troubling biopic, based on the amazing but true story of a black con artist — is a flawed but brilliantly thought provoking adventure in filmmaking. The film takes the same theme as Woody Allen’s Zelig, to tell a witty and sardonic tale of a master impersonator in a refreshingly human and comical way.

Wendell B. Harris Jr., the director, writer, narrator and star, plays the sarcastic Doug Street, who passes himself off without qualifications as a surgeon, a reporter, a lawyer, and a foreign exchange student at Yale.

The very bright and perceptive Doug Street is living in Detroit in 1978 and is married to his second wife, the gorgeous Gabrielle (Angela Leslie), who keeps nagging him to “make some money.” He’s bored working for his father installing burglar alarms in private homes, and is upset that he still lives in his father’s house.

Doug starts off his life of crime with a mindless extortion scheme on Detroit Tigers baseball star Willie Horton, as he claims to have photos of the married man with other women and wants $50,000 to not show them. It ends up being perceived as a publicity stunt, as the Detroit newspaper prints the blackmail note and he goes on Dave Barber’s TV show to talk about the botched scheme.

Doug proceeds to pass himself off as a reporter for Time magazine using false credentials, as he interviews basketball celebrity Paula McGee until the interview is cut short when he is discovered by her secretary as a phony.

In a bar restaurant Doug’s punched out by a white rowdy trying to solicit his wife, and when taken to the hospital he comes up with his next scheme to be a graduate of Harvard Medical School and use those phony transcripts to get hired as an intern surgeon in the local Detroit hospital. Doug even performs a successful operation, before a routine security check uncovers him. For this infraction he’s sent to prison.

In prison, Doug reads a lot and wards off a sexual predator by faking a nervous disorder. Doug is transferred to the prison hospital for psychiatric care under the pompous Dr. Hand. In a therapy conference with the psychiatrist he admits that he aims to give people what they want. Doug claims to be intuitive and within a short period of time he can use his personality to fit the situation. Escaping from the hospital, Doug arrives at Yale. He steals a student’s I.D. card after accidentally bumping into him, and then poses as a French exchange student, falls in love with the Yale library and another exchange student from Kenya (Amina Fakir), while also securing a dorm room.

At a masked ball Doug meets his wife again, who has since become a Jehovah Witness. When his wife takes him back to live in Detroit with their young daughter, Doug schemes to work his way up the ladder with the Detroit Human Rights Commission as an attorney. But this scheme results in some more jail time after his wife rats him out to the authorities.

Why Doug does these scams can best be explained in a parable that is recited by many people one line at a time as the credits roll by, as they tell the story of a frog and a scorpion who wants to cross the pond. The scorpion asks the frog to take him across on his back, since he can’t swim. But the frog says you can sting me and I will die. The scorpion counters — why should I sting you if you are helping me, and furthermore I will also die if I sting you. The frog cannot disagree with that logic and takes the scorpion across, but the scorpion stings him. Before the frog dies, he says please tell me — Why? The scorpion says because that’s my character.