“If you want to get a great production deal in Hollywood, all you have to do is be Black, male, and NOT Wendell Harris.” This sentiment was used as a running joke throughout Hollywood in the early 1990s, a representation of the attitude the industry held for filmmaker Wendell B. Harris Jr. after the release of his debut film, Chameleon Street.
Unlike many who land in “director’s jail”, however, Chameleon Street wasn’t a big-budget flop or critical disaster. Winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, it seemed like the sky was the limit for the film and Harris Jr.’s career. Instead, he struggled to find distribution, eventually getting a deal from Warner Bros. for a quarter-million dollars so that they could have the remake rights for a remake that never happened.
Chameleon Street is inspired by the real-life story of William Douglas Street Jr. (played in the film by Harris), a Detroit con artist who impersonated professional reporters, lawyers, athletes, extortionists, and surgeons—going so far as to perform 36 successful hysterectomies. Despite the biggest prize at Sundance and critical support, the film received a paltry theatrical showing before soon being banned from broadcast television, suppressed by Hollywood for three decades since its release.
Soon after the film’s new 4K restoration, courtesy of Arbelos, screened at this year’s New York Film Festival, it is set to receive a theatrical rollout beginning with BAM Brooklyn. Audiences will finally be able to witness Harris’ incendiary satire on the nature of race and class in America. We spoke with Harris about the making of the film, Hollywood’s response to it, and the many fascinating projects he’s tried getting off the ground since its release.
The Film Stage: Hi, Wendell. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today.
Wendell B. Harris Jr.: Well, I thank you, Mitchell, because I’ve got a question.
Go for it.
Do you speak French?
A little bit. Not a lot. Certainly not fluent. Good instinct, though—my last name is French-Canadian.
That sounds like me. I was wondering because I’ve never heard your last name before, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Doesn’t that mean “beautiful father”?
It does, yeah.
That’s incredible. That’s a great name. I might like to use that for some character in a future movie.
I would be extremely flattered if that happened.
Well, thank you. Thank you. That’s a great, great name.
This was quite the way to start the interview. Getting into Chameleon Street, this is such a fascinating story, one people likely wouldn’t even believe if it wasn’t true. How did you first encounter William Douglas Street’s story, and what were your first impressions of it?
I was sitting in the den of my parents’ home in the spring of 1985. I was just perusing through the Detroit news, and I came across an article that was devoted to Doug Street’s career—which at that point had lasted from 1970 until ‘85. The moment I read that article, I knew two things. I knew that it was a great role for me to play, which I was looking for, and I knew that it was a great plot for revealing the racism in America. You know that expression “I felt like I was hit by a sledgehammer”? That’s how it felt. Within 48 hours, I was getting in contact with Doug Street to start the interview process, which lasted for three years.
How did Doug react to you expressing that interest in making this movie about his life story?
I don’t know if this made a difference or not—it probably did—but when I contacted him, he was incarcerated in upper state Michigan. He was extremely affable and excited to take part. It’s very funny, Mitchell. I’ve been thinking lately about something, which I haven’t actually shared with anybody, and I haven’t even really thought about it for a long time. There’s something that happened when I met Doug, which lasted for the next four years, and I think it’s representative of Doug’s character and modus operandi.
As it says in the film, Doug is a chameleon, and like a chameleon he immediately begins to turn into whatever is going to attract and open up the person he’s up against. With me being a filmmaker, over those four years that I knew him intimately and interviewed him so intensely, Doug morphed into a filmmaker. He was constantly talking to me about how he had always harbored a desire to become a filmmaker, and that he had an idea to make Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man into a screenplay. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it, he was constantly working his “magic” on me in terms of trying to bond with me the way he bonds with everyone. By becoming the relationship that he’s attempting to purport.
I was curious about that idea of developing this relationship with somebody who you know is a confidence man. Did you ever feel like you were getting to know the real Doug Street in any way, or did it just feel like he was performing what he thought you wanted him to be?
I’ve always been very supportive of anybody who approaches me and says that they want to make a movie and become a filmmaker. When he started talking like that, I was supportive of him, and I tried to encourage him. In the back of my mind, though, I always suspected that when the movie was finished and released that Doug’s career as a filmmaker would also be finished and released.
Do you know what Doug’s response was to the finished film once it was released? Was he a fan?
I’ve kept this secret for 30 years until very recently, but there’s no point now. Immediately prior to the film winning at Sundance, Doug contacted my mother, who was an executive producer on the film. He wrote my mother a letter, which I still have somewhere, in which he essentially said that he was appalled by the movie. He said that his only consolation was that the film was so poorly made that nobody would ever see it.
Now, when he gave us the rights to his life’s story, we had drawn up contracts and he signed them so that he would make a percentage of whatever profit we made. A few weeks, or a couple months, after that letter, he came to my mother’s house to collect his first check and from that time he was always very appreciative whenever he got a check from us for Chameleon Street. Later, he expressed surprise to my mother that the film had been successful—that is, before 1994 when the film was banned from global television. I don’t know if he actually apologized, but he was always very appreciative of the checks.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how during that development process, over those three years of speaking with Doug, that you had written 36 different drafts of the script. You were constantly writing and rewriting. How did the script for the film evolve over that period of time? How was the first draft different from the 36th draft?
Have you ever seen Lawrence of Arabia?
Okay, so you know that’s like a three-hour-and-some-odd-minutes movie. The initial script for Chameleon Street—the script that we actually shot—was a little over three hours. The evolution of the screenplay took place over that three-year period, but not because I thought I needed to spend three years on this screenplay. After the first year, I thought the script was ready to shoot. The only reason we didn’t start shooting was because we hadn’t raised enough money yet. It took three years for us to raise the budget, so I used that time to constantly rewrite and revise.
Somebody once said that “writing is rewriting”, and I think that’s true with everybody. The first year of drafts, I would say the script was essentially 110 pages, and then over the next two years it got longer and longer until it was a three-hour film. Then in the editing process we cut it down to its current state, which is 93 or so minutes.
As you mentioned earlier, a big reason why this film resonates so well is because it gets into the deeper significance of Doug Street’s story, beyond it being an exhilarating con artist tale. Assimilation is a word that keeps coming to mind for me when thinking about the film—particularly with how Black folks in this country are forced to adapt to these molds in order to fit in the social and systemic strata.
That is absolutely, to the tee, the entire Doug Street experience and phenomenon. And that, of course, is simply a reflection of the Black experience. There have been many people over many centuries who have written about the double-sided nature of the Black experience in this country. Black people have had to intimately understand white people. White people have not had to intimately understand Black people. There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about performance and performativity, and what role that plays in the life of Black people. It plays a huge role, because if you are disenfranchised and you are positioned into subservience, then understanding your oppressor becomes absolutely crucial. Knowing where the lines are drawn becomes absolutely crucial.
I’ll give you an example, Mitchell. This is just an example of the entire phenomenon. Somewhere in the south in 1946, a Black man was running through a field, and he was shot by a white man. Shot and killed. The white man was asked why he had shot the Black man, and he responded “Well, you know, he was Black and he was running. So, I knew he had done something.” This guy had been running because he was running. I guess you can call that “running while Black” as a crime that you can be shot for. Understanding where you are, when you are in danger, what is going to go over the line, and can get you hurt or killed or lose a job or whatever—that has been at the forefront of the Black experience.
That brings up an interesting idea, because I’ve been seeing responses to the film with this new restoration, where white viewers will say things like “this story resonates more today than it did when the film was released.” It’s something you see a lot for films that tackle the Black experience. As a white person myself, I think it puts a light on how there’s a very different experience for someone like me watching this film than a Black person watching it. As you touched on, there’s been an effort recently for white folks to be paying more attention to different perspectives, so maybe for us it does resonate more than when it was released. For Black audiences, though, it’s representing an idea that hasn’t changed at all. It’s not resonating more, but instead shining light on something that’s the same now as it was in 1990, as it was in 1946, as it was 400 years ago.
Exactly. I hope that you put that speech that you just made into the article, because that’s extremely apt.
With that in mind, did it surprise you, after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, that it was still so difficult to get distribution for the film? You just won a major award at a huge festival and people still didn’t want to touch the film.
I was very surprised. I was standing up there accepting the award with my mother and brother, with Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe presenting me with the award. I’ll tell you, Mitchell, I thought I was home free. I thought this meant Hollywood was welcoming me. I was quoting Sally Field: “They like me, they really like me.” That’s what I felt. I thought there would be distribution offers that very night, or at least the next day. That did not take place until a year later.
I was so encouraged by winning the award that I decided to move out to Hollywood and reap the rewards, the same way that Steven Soderbergh had reaped the rewards of winning Sundance a year earlier. And this was around the time in the early ‘90s, when Black film directors, mostly male, were encouraged to make films and were actually getting them made. It took me three years to realize that there were not going to be any real rewards for me.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this joke that I heard, but when I was out in Hollywood there had been a joke going around at different production offices throughout the town that if you want to get a great production deal in Hollywood, all you have to do is be Black, male, and NOT Wendell Harris. After three years of that, I realized that I had miscalculated in thinking that Hollywood was interested. Sundance has always been interested in supporting independent filmmakers. That does not follow in Hollywood. They’re interested in taking ideas that might be inspired by an independent film, but as far as letting independent filmmakers be welcomed into the Hollywood bowl, that is usually not the case. It certainly was not the case for me.
Did you feel like there was this fear out there of what Chameleon Street was saying that made it so Hollywood was afraid to work with you on anything, even beyond that film?
Something which I have not shared many times, and I should make a point to say, is that during the three years out there I was offered a few films which I actually turned down. I was offered the chance to direct Maniac Cop 3. There was some movie about a man who had an arm coming out of his stomach—I forget the title of it. It ended up being made, starring Judge Reinhold. I turned that down. There were opportunities, but they were not the opportunities that I wanted to follow. I chose several writing jobs at that point to try and pay back my family, who put in $700,000 of the $1.5 million budget to get Chameleon Street made. I took every writing job I could glean to try and make up for that loss.
I read about a project you were trying to get made around that time, titled Negropolis. It certainly sounds like a film Hollywood would have been terrified of. Could you tell me what that film would have entailed, and how close it got to actually getting made?
At the time, and I still think now, Negropolis would have been a hilarious and profound satire on ancient Rome, which essentially promoted Black people to the ruling class—Black people as the Emperor and the Senate and all of that—and the white people were relegated to slavery. I pitched that all over Hollywood. I would often pitch that to various white executives, and they would look at me as if I had pulled my pants down and defecated on the carpet right there. The film itself had wonderful elements. I wrote a role for Oprah Winfrey. She was going to play Cleopatra. Howard Stern was going to play a Jewish Alexander the Great.
It was taken as a possibility for Spike Lee’s production company. We were going to collaborate on that. I expended $20,000 paying my attorney, who negotiated with Spike’s attorney for three or four months to put that film together. Then, at the last minute, the day we were supposed to sign, I contacted Spike and said that I would like to share final edit with him. He was directing Crooklyn at the time, and I’m told by people who were there on the set of Crooklyn that he absolutely exploded. He detonated, and he essentially called off the project right then and there. That was the closest Negropolis ever got to being made.
Another project that sounds really interesting, that you actually shot all of, is called Arbiter Roswell. In an interview from 2007 you mentioned you had been working on it for 13 years and were hoping to finally get it released. You had a 33-minute trailer for it on the Chameleon Street DVD and said the film was around three hours long. Is there still hope that we’ll be able to see that finished film one day?
Yes. At the moment, I’m working on it for a podcast. I have changed the title of Arbiter Roswell because it gives the impression that it’s some kind of alien movie. It does indeed deal with the Roswell incident, but it’s not something like Independence Day. It’s about the way the Pentagon and Hollywood work hand-in-hand to produce movies and events—incidents to shape the minds and behavior of the masses. Roswell is just one example of this. Roswell was produced by the Pentagon, just like MGM and David O. Selznick produced Gone with the Wind, the way that art from Michelangelo through Michael Jackson is used to manage the beliefs of the masses. That’s what the documentary is focused on. You’ve seen the Sistine Chapel, right? By the year 1500, this entire Renaissance was promoting a color-coded image. That was brought to fruition in the Renaissance and played out through the next 500 years.
Thinking about time, and circling back to Chameleon Street, this is a film that took you many years to get enough funding to make, and now has taken you 30 years to fight to get it seen by audiences the way that it deserves to be seen. With this new restoration screening at the New York Film Festival and now playing for more audiences in theaters, does that feel like a victory? Or do you still feel like you’re in that fight for it?
Where were you when Obama was elected?
I was at my home in Delaware.
When Obama was elected, that triggered a lot of different people contacting me about how now Chameleon Street would be re-released. Now that we had a Black President, that meant Chameleon Street would finally be distributed and see no more suppression, no more being banned from global television. I’m here to tell you that never happened.
You asked me how I feel. I am very grateful every time I talk to a journalist, every time a film festival screens Chameleon Street. I’m certainly very grateful that Arbelos put together an extraordinary restoration, and hired an extraordinary publicist like Emma Myers, who has done more in the last month and a half to promote Chameleon Street than anybody has in the last 30 years. I’m very grateful for all of that. But listen, man, when you’ve been fighting for 30 years, you wait before you totally rejoice. I don’t take anything for granted. Nothing is for granted, but if this all dried up tomorrow, I would understand that because that’s what it’s been like for 30 years.
I can tell you, I’m definitely joining Emma in doing what I can to get people to see the film. It’s a marvelous work and I want to thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been a real privilege, Wendell.
Thank you, Mitchell. And whatever you do, man, never change your last name.
I won’t, I promise. I’ll be looking for Beaupre in something of yours coming up.
Oh, yes, it will be used. Now that I’ve got your permission, I’ve definitely got an idea for where to use it.
The 4K restoration of Chameleon Street will be released by Arbelos in theaters beginning with BAM Brooklyn on October 22nd. Learn more here.