"Chameleon Street" is one of the most slept on films to come out since the late eighties. Wendell B. Harris wrote and directed this film and he based it on the life of a con man named Douglas Street. He took the film to Sundance in 1990 and won the Grand Jury Prize, but ended up leaving without a major distribution deal. If you haven’t seen it, buy it, don’t rent it. Like "Killer of Sheep," you will have to see it more than once to fully appreciate it.
If you’ve never heard of the film, maybe you’ve heard of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. On their first album together, the self-titled "Black Star" album, they sampled "Chameleon Street" for the intro to the song "Brown Skin Lady."
"Chameleon Street" ("Brown Skin Lady" Sample)
"Chameleon Street" makes references to quite a few other films, but there are a few that stand out. Some very profound references appear to be made to Ousmane Sembene’s film "Black Girl." Two scenes involving Douglas Street and his daughter make clear references to this film. In the first scene Douglas’s daughter is complaining about her need for new toys. Doug responds by picking up one of her white Barbie dolls and spray painting it’s face black, then telling her that it’s her new toy, “Black Barbie”.
"Chameleon Street" (Black Barbie)
The film "Black Girl" tells the story of a Senegalese girl named Diuoana who gets a job as a maid and ends up going to France to continue working for the French family that hired her. She has big dreams of assimilating into French culture and living a French fantasy that she thinks will exceed anything that her Senegalese culture could offer. She sheds her old clothing, covers her natural hair with a European wig, and starts wearing high heels and dresses given to her by her employers. There is a motif in the film that revolves around an African mask and it would appear that Wendell B. Harris incorporates that into the next scene where he plays a game with his daughter. This scene actually captures a large part of the story in "Black Girl," and gives it a twist that’s quite fitting for the story of Douglas Street.
"Chameleon Street" ( “Black Girl” allusion)
Anyone who hasn’t seen "Black Girl" should see it because it is a very powerful film. I would include more clips from "Black Girl," but I would have to show you the whole film to illustrate the parallels. Though it deals primarily with French colonialism in Senegal, the issues of assimilation and cultural identity transcend the place and time of the story. The scene in "Chameleon Street" seems to be a clear reference to this film, with the wooden mask on the white wall, the map of Africa in the background, and the game he plays with his daughter, are clearly meant to be a commentary on Douglas Street’s conscious use of assimilation to con people.
In the original French film, Pepe le Moko is a criminal who can’t leave the Casbah because the authorities will arrest him the moment he does. In the end he leaves the Casbah to persue a women that he is in love with, but ends up going to jail when a woman he has been sleeping with while hiding out in the Casbah snitches on him out of jealousy. A similar sequence of events is what lands Doug Street behind bars.
Apparently, when "Chameleon Street" won at Sundance in 1990, Wendell B. Harris was offered a distribution deal. If he accepted the deal his film would have been remade with Will Smith playing the role of Douglas Street. Harris didn’t accept the deal, but Will Smith apparently walked away with an idea he couldn’t let go of … The Rubik’s Cube!