Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Who Killed Chameleon Street?

April 4 2016

(left) This photograph of my brother Charles B. Harris, my mother Helen B. Harris, and me was taken at Prismatic Images in downtown Flint on January 14, 1986. We were excessively happy because our first investors—Jack and Ursula Schmitt—had just invested $30K in Chameleon Street, which I was still writing; (right) Box cover art for Chameleon Street’s 2007 DVD release.

“Telling the truth is the most dangerous thing you can do.”
—Helen Boulware Harris, executive producer, Chameleon Street

Since time is our most precious commodity, it is interesting to think about how we spend it. With an average life expectancy of 80 years, the average American can expect to spend a third of that allotment asleep, i.e. 25 years or 229,961 hours.

The average American male and the average American female are statistically similar in many ways. For example:

1. We both spend 72% of our working lives in front of digital media.
2. Each of us watches television for 9.1 years. (Two of those years are spent just watching commercials.)
3. We spend a total of 92 days sitting on the toilet.
4. Both American men and American women spend a total of 48 days absorbed in the act of sexual intercourse.
5. We both laugh out loud a total of 290,000 times.
6. Our laughter, however, is easily outdistanced by our flatulence. Every American farts with feral abandon 402,000 times throughout our 80 years of effervescent existence.

While generalized facts about American citizens can be instantaneously Googled, unraveling the facts about American blacks is extremely difficult. In fact, the search engine has yet to be devised that can clearly discern, let alone delineate, the schisms and algorithms of being black in these United States.

For example: I’ve often wondered how many years each black American spends explaining what racism is to white Americans. Try Googling that.

This very morning, while spell-checking this very article, I had a sixteen-minute phone conversation with a very smart and charming fifty-eight-year-old white American male recently hired by my company for digital graphics. Eleven of those sixteen minutes were spent by him methodically explaining to me: 1) Why Trayvon Martin was solely responsible for his own death; and 2) Why Trayvon Martin’s death had absolutely nothing to do with race or racism. I finally short-circuited these remarkable insights by declaring, “If you want to know what anti-Semitism is, don’t ask a Gentile, ask a Jew. And if you want to know what racism is in America, ask me . . . not you.”

There was a time in my life when I’d have taken much more time—maybe a couple of hours—talking to this guy. Maybe three hours, even. But now . . . not so much. After all, I’ve been having conversations like this one with Caucasians since second grade and frankly, I haven’t the faintest idea how many days, months, years, or decades have piled up in such discourse.

But would you like to know how much time I’ve spent explaining to an innumerable number of whites why Chameleon Street has been banned from global broadcast television? That one I can answer: 25 years. A full quarter of a century. And if you want to know the reason why it’s been banned and blacklisted from being broadcast in every country on the planet since 1994, don’t ask Werner Herzog, Quentin Tarantino, or Bill O’Reilly. Ask me. Or ask my Mom. Or ask Evelyn Keyes.

My name is Wendell B. Harris, Jr., and at some point during the last 25 years I morphed into the unofficially official World’s Leading Authority on Chameleon Street, an independently financed feature film initially released in 1990 and scheduled to screen at Manhattan’s nascent Metrograph on April 7, 2016. Its $1.5 million budget was comprised of $120K invested by my younger brother Hobart, $194K from mostly black private investors, and $750K invested by my parents. The screenplay I wrote (36 drafts) was intimately based on the incredible-but-true life exploits of Detroit-born William Douglas Street, Jr. The film was shot between October 1987 and May 1988, and took eleven months to edit. Chameleon Street won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 1990. A few months later, legendary Hollywood attorney Arthur Stashower assisted the film’s executive producer, Helen B. Harris (my mother), in selling Chameleon Street’s remake rights to Warner Bros. for a quarter of a million dollars. This transaction actually succeeded in making a little bit of Hollywood history. It marked the first time that an independent film that Hollywood resolutely refused to distribute had its remake rights nonetheless purchased by a major studio.

Released on VHS during the nineties by both Fox Lorber and Academy, Chameleon Street was briefly available on laser disc from 1993 to 1994, before ultimately receiving a resplendent restoration and DVD debut vis-à-vis Home Vision and Image Entertainment in 2007.

Chameleon Street’s waterloo took place in 1994, when the film suddenly disappeared from television in the United States. Up until then everything seemed to be great. Chameleon Street aired regularly on Comcast as well as specialty venues like the African Heritage Network. It then dropped off Canada’s broadcast radar and by the end of 1994 it was gone. And I mean gone, gone, gone. When a movie isn’t allowed to be seen on television, that movie ceases to exist. The temporal power that turned against Chameleon Street in 1994 knew exactly what to do in order to keep it out of the hands, hearts, and minds of Americans.

When I tell white people that Chameleon Street has been summarily banned from broadcast television, they invariably express profound disbelief and almost always start explaining to me why I’m mistaken. Again… I’m not really sure how much time I’ve expended trying to convince Caucasians that media suppression is reality, not fantasy. On the other hand, black people never give me an argument. On the contrary, they look at me and usually express some form of surprise that the film was ever made at all. And yet Chameleon Street has always had allies, friends, and admirers from all over the world. Many of these people run institutions, festivals, and archives. Many others are film critics. These people have kept Chameleon Street alive throughout these long, lost years of enforced oblivion.

The film has screened at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the British Film Institute in London, Film Forum in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum, and many other prestigious venues. In 2009 it was inducted into the Sundance/UCLA archival “hall of fame.” And just last summer while the euro-based economic edifice of Greece tumbled into disarray, Chameleon Street received a standing ovation at the Syros International Film Festival in Athens.

While American audiences have always “plugged into” Chameleon Street, the same can also be said of European, Japanese, and African audiences. Not only do they all “get it,” they really “get it”! I remember watching a middle-aged Italian gentleman in Venice laugh so convulsively hard that he ended up falling out of his chair. Never seen that before or since.

And then there are the reviews. All those amazing, illuminating reviews. I think I’m most grateful for the reviews, which have continued to crop up throughout these last 25 years. I started assiduously reading movie reviews and film criticism at the age of six. After the films themselves, film critics were my first and maybe greatest teachers. Still are. Film critics are filmmakers—all of them … not just Truffaut and Godard. All of them. Whether they ever actually make a film or not, their insights into the medium and storytelling are aesthetically invaluable.

And then there’s Evelyn Keyes.

Evelyn Keyes called me up in Hollywood for a little chat about Chameleon Street in May of 1990. In 1939 Evelyn Keyes played Scarlett O’Hara’s sister Suellen in Gone with the Wind. It was now 51 years later, and Ms. Keyes had just seen Chameleon Street. She really loved it and thought it was the biggest racial breakthrough she’d ever seen, cinematically speaking. She told me she thought it was going to “jump-start a whole new chapter in both Hollywood and American race relations”! She asked me a lot of questions about Doug Street (everybody always asks me about Doug), making the movie, going to Juilliard, and what I thought about John Houseman, whom she loved. She also asked me a lot of questions about my parents. “I’d love to meet them,” she whispered. Her comments about Gone with the Wind, however, have never left me. She said being in Gone with the Wind had been a double-edged sword that never stopped cutting both ways. “On the one hand,” she said, “it was nice to be part of the most famous movie ever made. But on the other hand, Gone with the Wind poured cement into America’s racial divide. I thought that cement would never be broken—until I saw your movie. Now, I’m thinking there may be some hope…!” Evelyn Keyes ended our conversation by telling me how she was so glad to have lived long enough to see Chameleon Street, which she considered not only more healing and therefore more important than Gone with the Wind but also more important than Roots . . . “because Roots merely dramatized how black people were placed in America, while at the same time Roots kept the blacks in their place, just like Gone with the Wind, really. But your movie…” She paused. I jumped in: “Doesn’t know its place—??” She laughed, and said, “Well, yes, I guess that’s right. Your movie refuses to sit in the back of the bus!”

Chameleon Street plays at Metrograph on April 7 at 3:45 and 8:30.