Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Cinematic Art and Legacy of Wendell B. Harris, Independent Filmmaker

Sundance Institute's 25th Anniversary Party

(L-R) Director Barbara Kopple, Sundance Film Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, writer/director Wendell B. Harris Jr. and director Steven Soderbergh attend the Sundance Institute's 25th Anniversary Party held at the Racquet Club during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival on January 19, 2009 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images) * Local Caption * Steven Soderbergh;Geoffrey Gilmore;Barbara Kopple;Wendell B. Harris Jr.


Wendell B. Harris (b. 1954) is a genius and one of the greatest and most important filmmakers in the United States today even though he's only made one film thus far that has been nationally distributed--the justly critically acclaimed and iconic CHAMELEON STREET (1990), a now classic and legendary independent black film that not only many film lovers throughout this country but in many film festivals and screenings throughout the globe have been raving about--and continue to rave about--to this day. Like many others I am still happily obsessed with this truly brilliant movie and I have personally shown the film to students in many undergraduate and graduate college film courses I have taught throughout the country. In any event please check out the following video and text below that includes two fantastic interviews with Harris himself in 2010 in Brooklyn, NY (where he talks with the equally great film critic Armond White!) and a lengthy fascinating interview via skype in 2011 after a screening of Chameleon Street (CS) in Austin, Texas. I've also enclosed the original New York Times review of CS from January 29, 1990 (!) which somehow manages to explain in some excruciating now retrospective manner just how far so-called "black cinema" has declined (at least the kind of "black film" (sic) that the controlling white corporate sponsors in the mainstream film industry heinously and routinely now make "available" to mass audiences via the thoroughly corrupt, venal, clueless, illiterate, INCOMPETENT, and extremely self hating likes of Tyler Perry (yuck!) and Lee Daniels (double yuck!!). It's absolutely bizarre and tragic but not surprising in the least that Perry's personal fortune is now over 300 million dollars and he has his own independent film studio in Hollywood and Daniels has made six very bad--and racist--movies that have been repeatedly nominated for Academy Awards in which over half of which have actually won awards while Wendell Harris still struggles in almost total commercial obscurity and can't get another film of his released or financed for the many reasons he talks about in the following interviews. The word "injustice" doesn't even begin to describe why this is so. It's obviously a major indictment of a rapidly declining society and culture that would rather--as usual--lazily embrace, buy, and defend the ignorant, destructive, and overtly hateful expressions of babbling and jejune con artists than seek out or pay any real attention to those artists and works that actually do tell us something real and valuable about our lives via art...

Yet what remains inspiring (and useful!) is that Wendell continues to fight for real, viable alternatives and to educate others as to how and why this creative committment to genuine art can and must take place. In other words Harris openly acknowledges and heartily supports the idea and necessity of STRUGGLE even in the face of the most overwhelming and disturbing odds. Wendell categorically REFUSES to give in to or succumb to the pervasive forces of despair and disillusionment. But thankfully that's what great artists always do and so it is in that ongoing creative and transformative spirit that I share the following information, insight, and analysis with you. Enjoy...and pass the word...


"Dare To Struggle, Dare To Win"

"Rubiks Cube" and "Street Diagnosis": Scenes from"Chameleon Street"--by Wendell B. Harris:

Uploaded by cfood3000 on Oct 18, 2011:

Cinema 41 of Austin, TX, presents discussion with director Wendell B. Harris, Jr., via skype after screening of CHAMELEON STREET at Hideout on Aug. 24, 2011 (video by Anne Heller):



In the film CHAMELEON STREET (1989), the enigmatic Doug Street goes through a series of cons, sometimes to make money, sometimes to prove he can do more than what the world expects of him. In short time he goes from a simple extortion plot to complex impersonations, including as a reporter from Time, a Yale student, a lawyer and even a surgeon. Yes, a surgeon.

The point of the film is not just to tell a story of a con man, but asks what a black man is expected to do to make a living in this modern world. Based mostly on the true story of super-con-man William Douglas Street, Jr. the film is written and directed by Wendell B. Harris, Jr. who also turns in an uncanny performance as the lead character.

The film existed in the burgeoning indie cinema of the early 90s. Unlike most of the films around him though, Harris provided a complicated character and not a simple genre drama or comedy. The extremely intelligent Street has great ideas to fight the system, but is constantly stumped by tiny details he cannot control. It’s a drama and you root for Street to win but feel sorry for the people getting conned as well. And it’s bittersweet funny, as the sardonic humor in the film rings all too true. Above all, you feel the frustration that leads to fighting back against the grain.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990. But that didn’t lead to distribution. Rather, the prize led to many meetings in Hollywood, the insult of a possible remake rather than a distribution deal, some deals for writing scripts, and a brutal joke. CHAMELEON STREET did get a forgettable theatrical release and Wendell was able to write some scripts. Only now at the end of 2007 does the film finally get a DVD release.

CINEMAD: I’m glad the film is finally coming out to DVD.

WENDELL HARRIS: My DVD distributor told me, “Please understand that CHAMELEON STREET is being perceived as an ‘art-house’ film by retailers. This will affect their initial buy.”

I’ve always had a really big problem with understanding what the word art-house film means. What is an art-house film? To me, it always has a connotation that, from a marketing standpoint, it means that not much of an effort is going to be made.

I would agree with that.

That may not be the case with Image. I think John Powers [marketing Vice President, Image Entertainment] knows what he is doing. What is your take on that phrase?

The art-house tag? That does mean that they will not put as much effort into it as they would toward a bad movie with a famous actor. I don’t necessarily think an art-house film has to make you think, but for the most part, it’s a film that’s not escapist.

It’s not TRANSFORMERS (2007).

No. You’re not going to be thinking while you’re watching TRANSFORMERS.

There are films from all over the world that are called art-house. But when I hear the words ‘art-house’, for some reason, it’s genetically speared into my DNA: I always think of EL TOPO (1970). And I haven’t even seen EL TOPO. But I think about this film! I’ve heard that the director lined up a million lizards and shot them on camera.

Frogs. [Actually, the famous frog scene is in the follow-up film to EL TOPO, called HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973).]

OK, frogs then. But that’s what comes to my mind whenever I hear that art-house tag. Shooting a million frogs. Something accomplished on a very low budget that very few people want to see. I have never fought people who call [CHAMELEON STREET] an ‘art film’ or a ‘black film’ or an ‘avant-garde’ film. To me, an art-house film is an un-marketed film.

CHAMELEON STREET has never been marketed aggressively. Up until this point, this is the most exposure it has ever received. The only reason you’ve ever heard of the film is because some film critics from 1990, 1991 and 1992 … they would not let it die.

The first time I heard about your film was because of the controversy of it not getting distribution. I don’t know what the show was, but you were being interviewed on a PBS show. It was specifically about how no one would distribute it even though it won at Sundance. Only Will Smith wanted to buy it so that he can make a remake.

That’s partially true. It went through four permutations. It was Arsenio Hall. Then Will Smith, then Sinbad. Between 1990 and 1993 I was totally focused on getting through the gauntlet. You know. You’re running through this gauntlet trying to reach a distributor. I never said Hollywood suppressed CHAMELEON STREET until around the mid-90s.

I remember when Elvis Mitchell came with the BBC to interview me at my apartment in Burbank. At one point Elvis Mitchell says to me, “Sorry for your film being suppressed.”

I said, “ Uh – what do you mean? Why do you think that?”

He said, “Well, why do you think Warner Brothers has paid you a quarter of a million dollars for the remake rights? Yet they refuse to distribute your film.”

The camera’s running and I’m going , “Aaaaaaaah…er, ah…” Robert Krulwich made the same point a year later on an ABC special. Now it’s 2007 and I can tell you: yeah, it was suppressed, all right.

How do those discussions with distributors go? “We really love your film and we think it’d be better if we make it again?” It’s purely business for them to buy a good idea and put someone famous in it.

That’s true. If you make the money, you’ll be promoted. If you don’t make the money, you won’t be. But as Orson Welles said, “There’s something more important in Hollywood than money. What vision is being promoted? ” In other words, what are the ideas being promoted in the film? Ideas get demoted and suppressed. Money is not the final arbiter. Content is king. It is what’s going to be given / fed to the American public and to the world.

The ideas in CHAMELEON STREET have always threatened the status quo. I was essentially paid a quarter of a million dollars to . . . it almost feels like bribe money, or hush money. I was told repeatedly by every distributor in Hollywood, “It’s a wonderful film! We just don’t know what to do with it.” But they knew exactly what to do with it. Suppress it.

I forgot to mention it was also being considered for Wesley Snipes as well. Each time it was given to a different person, it was given a different ambience. For Wesley Snipes, it was changed into a kind of car chase movie. For Sinbad, it was changed into a kind of goof-ball character. For Arsenio, it was a hybrid of the two.

Wendell B. Harris, Jr. as Doug Street.

Did they tell you what other titles they were going to call it?

No, they were going to keep it CHAMELEON STREET. By the way, when this went down, I was also given an associate producer credit, so that when the film was remade, I would be consulted.

Did winning Sundance not pack enough punch?

The prize of winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance is a 14” crystal obelisk. But that’s not the real prize. The real prize is that you get immediate access to every major production house in Hollywood. You get 25 meetings with all the top people. I could take the next three hours and tell you about my meetings with Jane Fonda’s company, Robert Redford’s company, Barry Levinson, Ed Pressman, Irving Azoff, Steven Spielberg, whoever! That’s the real prize.

If you were alive at the time you’ll recall I’m sure that 1989, 1990, 1991- that was the epoch of the black director. That was when being black was such a wonderful plus and you could actually get a good deal. After Sundance, I went to Hollywood in 1990, got an apartment in Burbank. I told myself that I was going to make myself as available as possible for the next three years.

But by 1993, after being there for three years, working to get work, I was sitting in Musso and Frank’s. A friend of mine who worked over at Paramount came over to my table and said, “Guess what I just heard?”

I said, “What?”

She said, “Well, it goes like this ….. All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.”

(Laughs) I said, “Thanks a lot!”

That sucks.

It makes a great anecdotal story. But man, when you actually go through it, it’s like going through hell.

I heard of one project called NEGROPOLIS.

That was one of my projects that I was pushing. I pushed to get that made for about four years. That was my satire comedy. I did get a bite in 1992 from Spike Lee’s production company but the deal fell apart. I pitched NEGROPOLIS all over Glib Town. In retrospect, I think some people in Hollywood were perhaps disturbed by the premise of NEGROPOLIS. You know, you walk into these meetings in Hollywood and say, “Okay, the whole movie takes place in ancient Rome except the emperor and ruling elite are all black and all the slaves are white. Isn’t that hilarious?” The response would always be, “Isn’t that amusing - ? Yes, what a novel approach. Do you see that novel door over there? Go make a novel exit.” I guess white people don’t want to be slaves. Who knew? Oh well ….. But the Senate is mixed. There are a few white senators. Koreans, too .

But there is so much hilarious stuff in NEGROPOLIS. Like I said, ancient Rome is being run by a black emperor named Canigula. Not Caligula -- Canigula. I wrote some great roles for several great artists: Shirley Caesar, Aimee Mann, Dom Irrera, Stephanie Miller, Aretha Franklin, Leah Krinsky and Chris Tucker…. This was before Chris Tucker started making 50 million per pic. One of the characters I loved was the Middle-Aged Hercules. He’s still strong but he wears a truss. Wanted Bill Murray for that. Then there is Alexander the Great who happens to be Jewish. Very Kosher but he’s got this long flaxen waxen blond hair which he is totally obsessed about… constantly combing his hair. I wrote that part for Howard Stern. You have to remember back in 1990 Howard Stern looked like he was about to assume the mantles of Groucho Marx, Pigmeat Markham, Jack Carter and Don Rickles. So, I wrote this great role for him. Also wrote a phenomenal role for Oprah Winfrey…. Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile and Cosmetology. Cleopatra runs this global corporation called Cleo’s Cosmetics, Inc. whose main product is beauty makeup for women. You would have seen facets of Oprah that have never been seen on film. That woman is a great actor. But they always stick her in these stolid, rustic, turgid, bucolic, Jemima matron roles. She has so many nuances but you never…. Well , anyway --- She was born to play Cleopatra. Then there was “Canigula.” That’s the part I wanted to play.

We should talk about something positive around the film. Was this your first feature?

I had experience with 8mm back when I was 9. But, yes -- it was my first feature on 35mm. Prior to that, it was short films in 8mm, super 8, 16mm and super-16. Working for years at Prismatic Images…. our audio/video studio in Flint, Michigan, which was incorporated in 1979. The end goal was always to make feature films. But to get to that end goal, there were 8 or 9 years shooting weddings, commercials, state lotto ads, making dubs for people of their VHS and beta tapes. It all built up to the making of CHAMELEON STREET.

It was obviously friends and people from around the city, everything coming together to help.

You got that right. Two-thirds of the investments for the $1.5 million budget came from my parents, Helen and Wendell B.Harris, Sr. that was $740,000. The remainder of the budget came from other investors. It took 4 years to get essentially a quarter of a million dollars from investors. It was like scraping dried blood off the sidewalk. You make hundreds of presentations to potential investors and only a handful come through.

But then it did.

It did. I’ve always said that CHAMELEON STREET is like the emblematic independent production. Everything about it is from the independent world and that experience.

Did you already know about the subjects that made the main character? It was essentially based off two scam artists, correct?

Certainly 90% of it is Doug Street’s story. The section where he impersonates the foreign exchange student from France comes principally out of Erik Dupin’s experience. Although, I have to add, Doug Street has a hot and heavy foreign film addiction. He loves German and French films.

You heard their story and were taken by it?

In 1983, I read a Detroit Free Press article on Doug Street. He had just been incarcerated in upper state Michigan for his impostor activities. In the article, they ran through what he had done during the 70’s and early 80’s. The moment I read the article, I said ‘Ah! What a fantastic film!’ I walked into the kitchen and told my parents. That’s how it all began. That was May of 1983. Took a year and a half before I went up to Kinross Correctional Facility in upper-state Michigan to interview Doug Street on three-quarter inch video. That began a prolonged period of research, which continued for the next 3 years, using letters mostly. I visited him a few times after he got transferred to Jackson Prison.

When you take this movie around the world, it’s amazing how some people respond. After screenings there would always be a question and answer session. You’re standing up there answering questions. It was like people were talking to Doug Street and not me! They got angry with Doug for treating this woman like that or using this kind of language, or whatever! If I ever saw the power of media, it was then. I would be answering questions at the end of the screening and people would be talking to me as if I were Doug Street …. completely oblivious to the fact that I’m just the actor. It was his life’s story that had been painstakingly researched. There were 36 versions of the screenplay written over 4 years. Doug Street wrote innumerable letters and everything in the film comes out of his experience.

That’s a good acting job too.

You hear about these people who are on soap operas, you know --- they’re walking through the grocery store and someone reprimands them for doing something to someone’s husband on the show. It’s very interesting.

Doug Street (Harris) makes a black Barbie for his daughter.

Did you understand his motivation? Is he nuts or is he somebody who just got so frustrated with society that this seemed like the thing to do?

I wouldn’t call him nuts. You used the word frustration, which is the illegitimate brother of anger. I know that Doug is angry. He told me one time, “I’ve got anger that goes back to kindergarten. Anger is my best friend.” It goes back to things that happened in his childhood which he continued to fester over as the years went on.

The anger that is present in Doug Street is present in 99.99% of black males in America. Every black male in America has been touched by this anger. Sometimes it feels like you’re being marinated in anger. Why? The playing field of this country is not only uneven --- it has potholes. And some of these potholes have signs that say, “For Colored Only.”

I’m not necessarily leaving out black women either. I’ve been black for 53 years now. Certainly, I’ve never met a black male who’s happy with the way black people are regarded and treated in the United States.

Does he have a wall that is missing that enabled him to take the steps to do things he knew he would get caught and put in jail for?

On the back of the DVD of CHAMELEON STREET, there’s a small little blurb that reads:


For Doug to actually take his bit of black anger and channel it into these various roles, I feel that there are so many things at play here. The effects of racism really boil down to personal experiences. You talk about ‘Oh, I went over here and this happened to me, the next minute that happened to me’. People who are constantly railing on ‘black people really need to pull themselves up by their own boot straps, get on with their lives, stop playing the blame game, stop playing the race card’ have not only missed the point … they have also missed the past. And they have also missed the elliptical nature of racism. Racism insists that your Present, Past, and Future are all identical. Playing the race card …. ! What a canard. The moment you are born into this country they hand you a race card. It’s a color-coded society. It would certainly be hypocritical to deny that. When Doug Street takes his experiences and says ‘I’m not going to play this game the way they are hypocritically laying it out for me. Instead, I’m going to go through these permutations that reveal how hollow and shallow the game really is.’ Then he proceeds to perform 36 hysterectomies at a Chicago hospital without getting past high school, let alone medical school.

He’s showing that society is ready to bow down at what you’re wearing, or what you say your degree is. All of that does work on a thematic level. But when you sit the real Doug Street down, you look into Doug’s face, you hear him talk about what he did, when he did it, who he did it to….. you can see he gets a real charge out of making this society dance to his tune.

Which is incredible.

People are amazing. People can do so much! The people who actually make the decisions for the masses in this country and in this world, they are very aware of ‘the power’ of the people, and how important it is to keep people thinking: Keep quiet, pay your taxes, just shut up and shut down, keep on keeping on and keep off the lawn while you’re doing it.

Don’t think about how we are raping you physically, spiritually, medically, financially, culturally. Don’t think about any of that. That’s partially why I think the whole undercurrent of Doug Street’s life and what he has attempted to do, really does expose this hypocritical , harsh life we’re living in, in high relief.

Did he enjoy the process of the film being made, something being done with his life? After he was caught, what was his mood?

He was only caught the two times. He was incarcerated not because somebody found out he had been impersonating someone, but because he was turned in by his wife. Another time he was caught because he had used someone else’s credit card, using too many charges. The point is that he wasn’t caught because of trip ups in his impersonations, but because of what he regarded as betrayal by his ex-wife.
He really is one of the most incredible con men that lived because he didn’t get caught.

That’s true. That’s true. We didn’t tell the whole story. I’ll tell you something I haven’t told a lot of people. The screenplay that we shot was a 274-page screenplay. That’s longer than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), along with half of GONE WITH THE WIND (1939). We shot an amazing story. I could make another two CHAMELEON STREETs with the footage left over!

Production still: Incarcerated in Jackson Prison, Street (Harris, left) listens to fellow inmate Eugene Raymond (Henri Watkins) explain why he killed his mother over comic books.

I take it he was smart enough to know that sooner or later, if you’re not playing by the rules, you’re going to go to prison.

One word you have not used in this interview that usually crops up is ‘compulsion’. He’s been incarcerated on more than one occasion for living this kind of lifestyle of impersonation. I don’t want to, in 2007, make any kind of equivocal statements based on where Doug’s head is at now. But I will say that between 1983 and ending with our joint appearance on the Geraldo show in 1990, my impression of Doug was that he felt it was his duty to continue with this lifestyle. He would make an effort to shore up or eliminate those aspects of his life that ended up always getting him in jail. Like bad credit card debt, or a woman.

The existence of racism … in so many words, this seems to be his take on it. As long as he is living in a society that promotes inequity, where a Katrina can take place at the drop of a hat, he is going to continue his crusade which other people have labeled (usually white people) a criminal compulsion. Racism is a criminal compulsion. Nothing good comes out of it. It triggers all kinds of angst and emotional abortion. Things happen. Things don’t happen. Some people weep, some people wail, some people work and some people impersonate other characters, like Doug.

It’s not done in a way where he’s ashamed of who he is, he wants to be someone else. That’s more like giving up. It’s different to say, I want to be a doctor so badly that I’ll just do it. That’s almost more of a psychotic thing where you’re trying to erase your identity. Instead, he was more like ‘look asshole, I can do this.’

When I’m standing in front of an audience after CHAMELEON STREET, I often end up mentioning that Doug literally performed 36 hysterectomies. There is always this gasp of horror that comes from the audience. Mostly from women. And I agree … it’s worth a couple good gasps. But Doug would say it’s also worth gasping at the way doctors are treated like demi-gods in this country. Not just doctors but anybody with a degree. And it really bugs him that our society kow-tows to an idea of professionalism … not the real thing. Cutting a woman open without a medical degree is an extremely disturbing aspect of how far he was willing to take this thing. I hasten to add that every one of those 36 hysterectomies was blatantly successful. But it’s small consolation to those women who scream at me, “HOW DARE HE!”

Production still: Street (Harris, center) removes uterus of female patient without a medical degree, high school diploma or GED. Dr. Wendell B. Harris, Sr. hovers in the background serving as medical consultant for this scene.

It’s hard enough to make a film about somebody and their life, which you also want to make a film in which their condition exists in. At what point in your editing or your shooting, do you think, ‘Ok, this is going to be my comment.’ When there’ll be other times that reflect what happened exactly.

I did not see CHAMELEON STREET as an opportunity for Wendell Harris to start editorializing or adding to this or that experience. When I get a response from an audience member who acts like this entire thing came out of my experience, it is disheartening because I have to go back five steps and explain that this was a well-researched film. It was Doug Street’s life story, not mine. I did not spend four and a half years on that script so that I could get my take or slant grafted in. When we were shooting the film I would always tell the crew, ‘Look …. What we’re doing is, we’re putting Doug Street alone, naked, on top of a large Formica table. We’re putting these klieg lights on him and we’re going to shoot him from every angle.’ That’s what we did. One thing you haven’t quite asked me yet is, ‘What was Doug Street’s reaction to the film?’

Yeah that was coming.

There’s a famous registered letter that Doug wrote and sent to my mother, the executive producer, Helen Harris in 1989, hours after he first saw CHAMELEON STREET. He sent a brief one-page letter … very succinct, very pithy, very to the point. Doug was very disappointed. He felt exposed, that liberties had been taken with his life story. He was most upset with the slogan on the poster we used in our first campaign: I think therefore I scam.

He was very offended about that. He forgets that I got that line from him. One thing he was very pleased about was getting any revenue from the film. Through contractual agreement he did get a cut of the film’s revenue. He never turned down any of the checks.

What’d your parents think?

They liked it. My mother is very much alive but my father died in 2000. But they both liked it. They would have liked it even more if it had made a profit for the Harris family. I was just thinking earlier this morning that the film was released 17 years ago. The only thing that has gotten me through the last 17 years, other than the Lord Jesus Christ, are the memories of watching CHAMELEON STREET with audiences in Italy, Germany, and America. That as well as the reviews critics have written. I mean – I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve spent the last 17 years sitting in a corner fondling reviews of CHAMELEON STREET. But an odd thing happens when you spend the family’s fortune on an independent film that sinks, not without a trace but certainly without a profit. Some people kind of look sideways at “artists” anyway. But when the artist doesn’t make any money they go from looking sideways to looking down, avoiding eye contact. And if you don’t make money for a very long time they stop looking altogether.

But the memory of seeing audiences in Germany, Italy, Atlanta, Georgia, almost falling out of their chairs laughing…. That helped sustain me.

Did you always act in your films growing up?

Yes. Acting is always #1. Everybody has three aspects of genius…. Everybody has three talents – three areas of expertise in which they can perform at genius level. But one of these talents is your main root and the other two branch out from it. For me, it’s acting. Acting is my main root. Writing and directing came from my desire to act back when I was four or five years old. That’s when I told my Mom, “I think I need to start directing and writing my own films. That way, I’ll always get the part.”

That makes sense. After the three years in Burbank, did you think wanted to try acting instead?

I had a development deal with Jerry Weintraub, Cary Granit and Matt Leipzig at Warner Bros. for an alien / UFO movie. I was contracted to write the screenplay in 1991. I stayed in that development posture for about a year before everything evaporated into the ether. It’s called ‘turnaround’. I then moved back to Michigan with my research that I had done. Took all that research into a different direction, for a film called ARBITER ROSWELL. I started writing that script in 1993. I was writing other scripts for Hollywood and Showtime at the time. All the money I was making was being funneled back into ARBITER ROSWELL, which we started shooting in 1997. Steven Soderbergh was one of the actors we shot with. Also Ed Lawrence, Joel Weiss, Denice Marcel and Serena Roney-Dougal. Began making trips to Roswell with film crews …. Interviewing most of the major participants including Walter Haut, Glenn Dennis, Phillip Corso, and Carl Vick. Extensive interviews with the crème de la crème of ufology: Stanton Friedman, Linda Moulton- Howe and Michael Hesemann. We also interviewed counter-intelligence agent Frank Joseph Kaufmann on multiple occasions. There is no doubt that Frank Kaufmann is the most important witness / percipient of the Roswell incident --- period. The actual process of shooting and editing ARBITER ROSWELL extended over the next 10 years. There’s a trailer for ARBITER ROSWELL on the DVD of CHAMELEON STREET, which will give you an indication of what that film is all about.

The bottom line is: What’s great about being an independent is that you get to do it your way. I spent three years in Hollywood writing scripts for people and got a very good taste of what it’s like when you have a committee of six people giving you notes about the screenplay and screwing it nine ways to hell.


It doesn’t work, but it does pay the bills. It doesn’t get the film made with the vision intact. 13 years have been spent on ARBITER ROSWELL – that’s three times as much time spent on making CHAMELEON STREET. You lose all kinds of things when it takes 13 years to make a film. You lose the respect of most of your family and friends. People don’t return your phone calls. But here’s the plus. At the end of the process, you get what you want. I was spoiled by CHAMELEON STREET where 99.9% of what’s on screen is what I wanted. The exact same thing is the case for ARBITER ROSWELL.

That’s great. Do you see the end coming? The finished product? Or do you see that some things still need to fall in place first?

The trailer for ARBITER ROSWELL is a 33-minute trailer. The finished film is a three-hour film. All the footage has been shot, but it is not completely edited yet. This 33-minute trailer gives a very good taste of what the finished film is all about. Many people have told me that once the DVD gets released, it’ll be much easier to find investors to help complete ARBITER ROSWELL. To be finished after 13 years…..

You started it with Jerry Weintraub, but do you actually own it?

The screenplay I wrote for Weintraub was called UNTITLED UFO STORY. That was just a generic title. That screenplay is still owned by Warner Brothers and Jerry Weintraub and has nothing to do with ARBITER ROSWELL. With Jerry Weintraub, a very funny guy, by the way, he gave me complete ownership over all the books his production company purchased to research UNTITLED UFO STORY. It was almost like $3,000 worth of research material. But I have to make clear that there’s no relation between ARBITER ROSWELL and UNTITLED UFO STORY.

You made a friendship with Steven Soderbergh from meeting at Sundance. Weren’t you there before his film was?

Here’s how the world perceives it. SHE’S GOT TO HAVE IT (1986) by Spike Lee and SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE (1989) were both released before CHAMELEON STREET. Steven had won [the Audience Award at] Sundance for SEX, LIES. Even though CHAMELEON STREET was actually shot and completed before [either film]. I took 11 months editing CHAMELEON STREET. That’s what, like four times as long as the guys who edited GONE WITH THE WIND ---? That’s about a year. That was brutal. Spike and Steven had both gotten out of the box with their films.

By 1990, Steven was one of the judges [at Sundance] along with Wim Wenders. The first time I ever met Steven was at a CHAMELEON STREET screening. The lights come up; we go up on stage and answer questions. Somebody from the back asked me a question that was so erudite and on the money, that I said, “Who are you? Are you a filmmaker?”

This voice in the back mumbles “Um, yes.” That was Steven, that’s how I first met him.

When you win the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ---- that is not an automatic distribution deal.

Or even a job.

Although it did transpire into three development deals. Steven kept saying “Don’t worry, it’ll come through. It’s going to come through!” This is in 1991. When a joke starts going around Hollywood that all you have to do to get a production deal is be a black male director and not Wendell Harris, I finally got hip to what was happening. Shame on me spending three years trying to work with them. I should have moved back to Michigan, worked up my company and gone on to the next film. But, I could not believe you could win the Grand Jury prize and not get some kind of deal.

What Hollywood cares about is money.

You said a mouthful there. I went to a million of these meetings. I pitched and I pitched until I was hoarse. I remember belly aching to Soderbergh, “I’m pitching and pitching and they’re nodding and showing me the door.”

He said, “You know what I do when I go to these meetings, I don’t talk. They think I’m extremely profound. You might want to try that.”

I wish I had now. All that talking I did was so much lost carbon monoxide.

Doug Street (Harris) refuses to pose seriously for his mug shot.

The film wouldn't be the same if made by a studio.

I’m sure you’re aware of how many of your decisions, as an independent, are made by how much money you have. If I ever sat down and went through CHAMELEON STREET and said ‘I wanted to do this, but I had to do this’ because you are limited with money. All of that means nothing when you can actually put your product on the table, go to bed at night and not lose sleep over, ‘I wish I had done that, I wish I had this or shot this’. Being an independent is glorious.

Will Smith has apparently copied your scene about solving the Rubik’s Cube to get respect. Do you have any idea of what that was?

I don’t necessarily blame Will Smith for the impression of CHAMELEON STREET. He was smart enough to marry Jada Pinkett Smith. If I have a problem at all, it’s this: I feel that CHAMELEON STREET deserves as much distribution as --- uh …. what’s the film with the dead guy on the beach?


WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S! If I were to walk through the country and ask people about the two films, people would recognize WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S immediately. Then they would ask me, ‘Where is CHAMELEON STREET?’



By Brandon Harris in News
on Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Perhaps it goes without saying that the world of independent film missed the boat on Wendell B. Harris Jr. No one, especially this author with the same surname as the now fifty-six year old Michigan native, wants to play the woulda, shoulda, coulda game. Yet whenever I think about the career I would have liked to have seen Mr. Harris have, it’s hard not to turn a bit melancholy. I guess being in the right place in the right time with the right people and a large enough sum of money counts for something, but if being at the podium in Park City with the Narrative Grand Jury Prize in your hands isn’t that place, than what is? No studio executive in 1990 thought to offer Mr. Harris the chance to direct Hugh Jackman and Robert Deniro in a sizably budgeted, sure to be faux uplifting account of the events in Selma; I’m not sure he would have accepted if they had.

After all, he made a film in Chameleon Street, his diabolically funny debut which screens as part of Contraband Cinema tonight at BAM, that reveals a black consciousness as messy, hysterical, and laden with the unspoken burdens of otherness as those that belong to most of the black folks I know. Which is also to say that he gave us, in the form of William Douglas Street, the con man who impersonated a Time Magazine reporter, Ivy League student, appellate lawyer and gynecological surgeon, one of the most unforgettable characters to grace American movie screens in the past quarter century. Charming and unrepentant, Street gets lost in his various masks, but even when he’s caught, he never fully lets on to the low simmer resentment than swims just underneath the surface of this formally audacious, wholeheartedly entertaining yarn. He’s just too debonair to be a victim, too singular to be an archetype, too righteous to be Flint, Michigan’s black answer to Tom Ripley. Leaving the Angry Black Man and Tragic Mulatto in the cellar where the rest of the cliches are stored, in Mr. Harris’ world there is just no way to simultaneously get ahead and Do The Right Thing, even if he plays as many roles for as many different people as the President does today, without the motorcade and fancy D.C. zip code. Of course, by the end of the film, you still don’t quite know him; you never can.

Like Billy Woodberry and Leslie Harris and Larry Clark (the darker one), Mr. Harris has so far left us, despite making a debut more widely acclaimed and known than any of theirs, without an encore, as hard as he surely tried. Good for him; despite his meetings with the Spielbergs and the Fondas, he didn’t see fit to remake Chameleon Street with Will Smith or Arsenio Hall or Sinbad, as was reportedly suggested during his stint in development hell. Integrity still counts for something. He’ll be on hand tonight with firebrand critic Armond White to discuss his picture after the 9:30 show.

Wendell B. Harris Jr.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Wendell B. Harris, Jr.
Born: Wendell Burks Harris, Jr.

March 5, 1954 (age 58)
Occupation Actor, Filmmaker

Wendell B. Harris, Jr. (born March 5, 1954), is a Juilliard and Interlochen-trained American filmmaker and actor. He is the writer, director and lead actor of Chameleon Street, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.[1] Wendell and Prismatic Images went on to produce a radio series entitled Black Biography which showcased Black icons from the spheres of art, history, and politics. He has appeared as an actor in the films Out of Sight and Road Trip. Wendell Harris is currently in post-production for the forthcoming documentary, Arbiter Roswell. This 14-year project chronicles the relationship between public opinion, the media, and the military-industrial complex.

References ^ James, Caryn (January 29, 1990). "After Pizza an Polite Squabbling, a Film Wins". New York Times. Retrieved 2 May 2010.
See Wendell B. Harris Jr. at the Internet Movie Database

Uploaded by adobeairstream on May 20, 2009

Adobeairstream interviews Wendell Harris Jr. about his movie Chameleon Street, re-run at the Marfa Film Festival and Sundance this year, after many years underground.


Critic's Notebook; After Pizza and Polite Squabbling, a Film Wins
Special to The New York Times

January 29, 1990

For more than six hours on Friday, the judges of the dramatic competition at the Sundance U.S. Film Festival squabbled politely, ordered in pizza, listened to one another's impassioned speeches and finally wondered how to break or evade the rules. When their private deliberations were over and the awards to independent film makers were announced at a modest ceremony on Saturday night, the grand-prize winner turned out to be one of the least talked about, least traditional, most personal films in the festival: Wendell B. Harris Jr.'s ''Chameleon Street,'' the fact-based story of a quick-change artist.

But the five judges made a point of giving special recognition to Charles Burnett's poetic drama ''To Sleep With Anger,'' resolving the problem of how to reward both films without diluting the impact of the prize.

Each movie is by a black writer and director, and if there was a statement implicit in the awards this year, it was the diversity and growing strength of black film makers.

A third film by and about blacks was one of the best received by the jurors and audiences. ''House Party,'' an energetic, lighthearted film about black teen-agers, features the rap musicians Kid 'n' Play. Written and directed by Reginald Hudlin and produced by his brother, Warrington Hudlin, who founded the Black Film Maker Foundation, ''House Party'' won both the jury award for excellence in cinematography and the Film Makers Trophy, a prize voted by the festival film makers themselves.

There had been a buzz, as they say here, about both ''House Party'' and ''To Sleep With Anger'' throughout the 10-day festival, which ended today. But during the endless movie conversations that took place in restaurants, at parties and in theater lobbies, ''Chameleon Street'' was scarcely noticed, much less buzzed about. To the very finish, it seemed that the only person who had actually seen the film was its publicity agent.

It is not hard to understand the difficulty in getting an audience to ''Chameleon Street,'' a film that is always admirable and sporadically enjoyable. Mr. Harris plays William Douglas Street, a man whose various poses question the nature of identity itself. In a loose series of fragments, he becomes a surgeon who performs an operation, a Harvard student and a civil-rights lawyer.

In quasi-documentary style, the film uses actors as well as people playing themselves, blending fact and fiction so the distinctions are never made clear. And though Street's first-person narration suggests that his behavior is both clever and compulsive, the audience remains too detached from this problematic figure to be absorbed in the film in more than an intellectual way.

''To Sleep With Anger,'' a leisurely work filled with visual imagery and references to black folklore, is stylistically more audacious than most mainstream films. But compared with ''Chameleon Street,'' this story of a middle-class black family is conventional. At least it has a straightforward narrative and a major star, Danny Glover. But the rough free-form structure of ''Chameleon Street'' seemed to count with the jury.

Armond White, a judge and a critic for the black weekly New York newspaper The City Sun, said after the ceremony on Saturday: '' 'Chameleon Street' is a different, more personal kind of cinema than most conventional narrative films. If Wendell B. Harris is not encouraged to work, American cinema is dead.'' But Mr. White emphasized that the jury award to Mr. Burnett was ''not a consolation prize; it's awarded with all the confidence and admiration of the jury,'' and with the feeling that there were just not enough prizes to go around.

The other judges included the actress Alfre Woodard and the film makers Steven Soderbergh, Peter Wollen and Morgan Fisher.

''House Party'' is by far the most mainstream of the competition films, the one with the greatest chance of commercial success. Unlike most of the films here, it was financed by a substantial production company, New Line Cinema, and it is to open across the country in March.

But while ''House Party'' sounds like a stock film for high school audiences - the hero, Kid, defies his father's punishment and escapes to a late-night party - Reginald Hudlin's direction and feel for his characters' speech and style raises the film above its genre.

At times, Kid's nightlong adventure resembles a black teen-age version of Martin Scorsese's ''After Hours.'' As Kid wanders through his small-town streets, he escapes from school bullies and is stopped for no reason by white policemen who call him eraser head because his haircut resembles a mesa on top of his scalp. But while Mr. Hudlin creates an effortless narrative that sweeps viewers along on a strong current of visual energy and music, he also carries the audience through a range of black society, from a country-club party to a cramped housing project.

''House Party'' was an unlikely choice for this festival, but it turned out to be so popular that two screenings were added. At one showing on Friday night, a crowd largely composed of middle-aged skiers and film fans sat quietly through a film that would have most theatrical audiences dancing in their seats. But after ''House Party'' ended, the audiences cheered and yelled, going wild to the extent that any Sundance audience ever does.

Though ''House Party'' managed to please the judges and audiences, it finished second in the audience vote for most popular film. This year's audience award for drama went to ''Longtime Companion,'' written by Craig Lucas. The film follows a group of gay men as the presence of AIDS gradually and tragically reaches them. ''Longtime Companion'' is the sort of well-meaning melodrama intended to touch audiences in the most visceral way, and the Sundance viewers were obviously responding to its sentiment rather than to its very limited artistry.

During the festival's final weekend, mainstream Hollywood stars, directors and producers arrived, at least in a small way. On Friday afternoon, Mr. Glover showed up for a screening of ''To Sleep With Anger'' and a reception for the film.

That night, while Mr. Glover was watching ''House Party,'' most of the movie-business types were at ''Blue Steel.'' Its director, Kathryn Bigelow, and its star, Jamie Lee Curtis, flew in for the premiere of the film, which was shown out of competition. Ms. Bigelow, who likes to subvert genre conventions, has created an intense, violent thriller about a rookie police officer, played by Ms. Curtis, who falls in love with a murderer (Ron Silver).

But though Ms. Curtis and Mr. Silver are chilling in their roles, Ms. Bigelow tends to rely on pretentious visual tricks; shafts of blue light are forever cutting across the screen. ''Blue Steel'' has little meaning beyond its overwrought style.

No one could call the awards ceremony anything but understated. The actor Willem Dafoe presented the prizes to the winners, many of whom wore jeans and snow boots.

Awards included those for the documentary competition, whose judges also seemed torn between conventional and innovative forms. But they obviously had fewer qualms about splitting a prize than the dramatic-prize jurors did. The documentary award was given to Stephanie Black's ''H-2 Worker,'' about the mistreatment of Jamaican migrant workers in Florida, and to Pat O'Neill's ''Water and Power,'' a decidedly nonnarrative vision of California politics, droughts and history. Mr. O'Neill's film was also shown at the New York Film Festival in October.

The ceremony's liveliest moment arrived when Mr. Harris, looking serene behind dark glasses, stepped up to accept his award for ''Chameleon Street.''

''I want to show you half a second of what's really going on,'' he said, and took off his glasses, gave an open-mouthed wide-eyed look of panic, then calmly replaced the glasses and his demeanor. He then offered to give movie roles to ''everyone who can hear my voice now,'' which was enough to generate some curiosity on the part of all those people who had forgottten that ''Chameleon Street'' was even in competition.


The House That Fox Built
Pish Posh, Passions and Professions

Interview with Wendell B. Harris, Jr.

Wendell B. Harris, Jr. (b. 1954) is an American filmmaker who was trained in drama at the prestigious Interlochen and Juilliard schools. He is the writer, director and lead actor of Chameleon Street, a Gethsemane84, Inc. / Prismatic Images, Inc. film, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival.

Wendell and Prismatic Images went on to produce a remarkable radio series entitled Black Biography, which showcased Black icons from the spheres of art, history and politics. He has appeared as an actor in the films Out of Sight and Road Trip.

Wendell Harris is currently in post-production for the forthcoming documentary, ARBITER ROSWELL. This compelling and rather startling 14-year endeavor chronicles the incestuous and internecine relationship between our minds, our media, and the military-industrial complex. Wendell returned to the 2009 Sundance Film Festival to screen Chameleon Street in the Sundance Collection and is touring as a guest speaker at college and university campuses nationwide. Recently, Wendell and Chameleon Street were lauded at the 2009 Marfa Film Festival – Marfa, TX.

The Films of Wendell B. Harris, Jr.

What is Chameleon Street?


Overflowing with talent and intelligence, Chameleon Street is an offbeat comedy and an overlooked gem. Juilliard graduate Wendell B. Harris Jr. hits a home run the first time out, writing, directing and acting in a sly tale loosely based on the exploits of a real con man, William Douglas Street. Like an African-American Ferdinand Waldo Demara, Street finds life more exciting when he’s assuming a different identity. Functioning as a lawyer, a student and even a surgeon comes easy because Street knows how to adapt himself to the needs of the people he meets, with a polite smile and a proper list of bogus credentials. As he says, quite sincerely, “I think, therefore I scam.”