‘Chameleon Street,’ Fascinating, forgotten and (mostly) factual

5th Ave cinema screens Wendell B. Harris Jr’s 1989 film

Chameleon Street, the only film by writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr. is, in some ways, a classic American narrative. A young man (Harris) is unsatisfied with his life and decides the only way to get to a better place is to completely change who he is—and who he appears to be.

William Douglas Street Jr. is a real-life con artist who still pops up in the news from time to time. At the beginning of the film, Street has had it with his dad’s alarm installation business and quickly sets out on a path of scandals that get him on the nightly news, into a cushy position as a surgeon at a hospital, and eventually into a jail cell.

Street isn’t a great character; he’s a great series of characters. Harris writes and portrays him as a man seeking purpose, becoming whoever he needs to be in that moment to climb the social ladder. He spends his entire life attempting to live for himself, but ends up living according to the needs of others. He’d be pitiful if he wasn’t so charismatic and sharp.

Much of the film is overlaid with Street’s narration commenting on and cracking jokes about his own predicaments. Harris’ comic timing is impeccable, and the combination of his acting and internal dialogue keeps the film light and genuinely funny.

Some details of the film cannot be confirmed as true due to the real-life Street’s penchant for embellishment, but many of the main events are based on real events.

Despite an award-winning run at Sundance Film Festival, the strong, charming and thoroughly researched Chameleon Street never found national distribution.

Though Chameleon Street lacks a place in the American film lexicon, it’s an outstanding biography of a deeply flawed man and a great way to spend an afternoon this weekend.

Portland State’s 5th Avenue Cinema screens Chameleon Street Feb. 9–11.

All 5th Ave. screenings are free to PSU students and faculty w/ ID, $5 general admission and $4 for all other students and seniors.