The malleability of racial identity has been at the heart of many notable works of art, perhaps none more famous and stunningly inventive as the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. In that imaginative odyssey through early 20th century society, the titular character must negotiate both White and Black spaces as varied as the deep South and the Communist party while only having the most tenuous grasp of his identity and sense of self-worth. One of the most prominent characters in Invisible Man is the hustler Rinehart, who the narrator is mistaken for one crazy night in Harlem. Over the course of a few hours, he learns that Rinehart is a religious man, a lover, a gambler. He is the exact opposite of the Invisible Man; whereas the Invisible Man feels great anxiety about shifting his identity so much, Rinehart has sacrificed his own to be everyone to all people while ultimately being nothing.
Decades later, a real hustler would inspire director and actor Wendell Harris, Jr. to create Chameleon Street, a film about a character who was a combination of the Invisible Man and Rinehart. His name was William Street, Jr., known as the “Chameleon” and the “Great Impersonator.” Over several decades, he successfully impersonated lawyers, athletes, surgeons and other highly respected members of society. He was often theatrical in his scams, sometimes even dressing in drag to elude captors. And often the people that he would impersonate were well-known figures such as a wide receiver for the Houston Oilers.
Street’s brazen and unapologetic flim-flam artistry inspired Wendell Harris, Jr. to make a film as bold and unfettered by boundaries as his subject. Chameleon Street is essentially a series of vignettes about Street’s various cons. Yet Chameleon Street is far more than a series of staid sketches. There are many uses of creative sound design that punctuate many of the scenes, such as a siren that goes off in his mind when he is asked to perform a hysterectomy, something that he is profoundly unqualified to do without a medical degree or even a high school diploma for that matter.
More important than the occasional sound effect is Street’s narration itself. Wendell Harris, Jr. plays Street with a self-assured gravity that is only amplified by his handsome looks and deep, resonant voice. Often in his cons, he simply has to talk in his self-assured way to convince people of his authenticity. It is also noticeable that he does not talk in AAVE or speak in a manner that is seen as typical of Black Americans. In fact, a scene in a bar where a drunk White man propositions Street’s wife right in front of Street prompts him to lecture the drunk man on the proper use of the word “fuck.” Even though it is childish and foolish to do so (indeed Street gets knocked out in the ensuing fight), it is also a striking example of the power of language to elevate its speaker as long as they know the idiosyncracies of how to speak.
Street’s confidence in his ability to adapt is more important than his skills himself. When he pretends to be a surgeon, the only way that he changes his appearance is by drawing a mustache on with mascara. He even admits that this is a flimsy disguise, especially in light of a TV interview he had given not too long before about trying to extort the wife of a Detroit Piston player. He simply says in voiceover that people forget. It stretches credibility that he is able to deceive the medical professionals around him for so long, but when he successfully performs that aforementioned hysterectomy, you almost believe him. It is only a random security check that reveals his deception. But even jail cannot keep him imprisoned for long. Street manages to escape, ingratiate himself with upper class society by pretending to be French, and even become the head of a successful corporation. It is only when he starts buying into his own myth that his downfall comes. In fact, right after monologuing how he could even be president someday, federal marshals come to arrest him for fraud.
Chameleon Street was Harris’ first directorial effort. It shows in its somewhat televisual style and general lack of polish. Contemporary critics had a point when they criticized the film for being too unfocused and desultory. Yet Harris was able to nail an essential part of what makes Street the hustler tick. Street realizes that most of American society is built on lies anyways: the lie of social mobility, the lie of true racial equality, the lie of celebrity, etc. Instead of taking the easy way out and making a straightforward film, Harris challenged himself to explore all of these themes through the perspective of one man, and the result is a fascinatingly complex take on race and capitalism and how deception lies at the roots of those issues. Chameleon Street challenges its viewers with its oblique approach, and the unctuous charisma of Harris’ performance as Street. Yet it is this challenge that paves a willing viewer’s way to deeper consideration about the system that Street functions in.