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Art of Allusion: ‘Chameleon Street’

Art of Allusion: 'Chameleon Street'

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)

The ending of “Black Girl” shows the French man that employed Diuoana coming back to bring her personal belongings to her mother. The little boy is present who sold Diouana the mask. He puts the mask on his face and stalks the man all the way to his car and watches him leave.
“Black Girl” (closing sequence, starts around the 53-minute mark)

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.

They say great minds think alike and I guess that’s what we have here. I saw the connection between these two films and figured this had to have been done intentionally, but I had the honor of speaking to Wendell B. Harris at a showing of “Chameleon Street” and he informed me that he had never seen “Black Girl” or any other films by Ousmane Sembene. It turns out that it’s all just a coincidence, but I think comparison holds value so I figured I would share it anyway. Though there was no intentional commentary specifically referencing “Black Girl” I think that the way the film tackles the same issue from a different angle should be of interest to anyone wants to tackle issues of race and identity in their work.
On a lighter note, in a comical reference to the French film classic “Pepe le Moko,” Douglas Street decides to hide out on Yale campus because he can’t go home due to a warrant that’s out for his arrest. He tries to pass himself off as an exchange student and introduces himself as “Pepe le Mofo”. Harris appropriates the name, gives it a black exploitation twist, and casually applies it to Douglas Street’s
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!

In one of his scams, Douglas Street pretends to be a doctor and goes on an interview for a position at a hospital. He impresses the doctor that’s interviewing him by solving a Rubik’s Cube that’s sitting on the doctors desk and ends up getting the job. Will Smith uses this concept on the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and in “Pursuit of Happyness.” After doing some searching I found that someone has already put together a video documenting this:
Rubik’s Cube

If you have not seen Chameleon Street and “Black Girl,” please get them because you are definitely missing out.

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