The Black Cinema Is… “Chameleon Street”


In the fifth installment of our series “The Black Cinema Is…” film scholar Michael B. Gillespie of Ohio University will be introducing and then leading a discussion on Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s 1989 film Chameleon Street.
Chameleon Street won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival at a time when American independent cinema was beginning to significantly cross over into the mainstream. Moreover, the film circulated at a time of renewed interest by audiences, academics, critics, and the film industry in “new black cinema.” Yet, the film did not benefit from this interest, appearing more as an anomaly in comparison to the black films that were circulating at this time.

Harris, who also wrote the film, stars as William Douglas Street, a real-life con artist who practiced his impersonations in the 1970s and 1980s. Inspired by Street’s history of masquerade, the film details his chameleon impulses as an aspiring baseball player, a doctor, a graduate student, and a lawyer. “I give people what they want. When I meet somebody, I know in the first two minutes who they want me to be,” the film’s protagonist confides, and ultimately this sharp ability to read people guarantees the success of his imposter poses.

Dr. Gillespie’s introduction will focus on how the director and the independent origins of the film continue to challenge our understanding of black film. He will also discuss the exhibition/reception history of Chameleon Street to demonstrate the ongoing need to think about the idea of black film in more challenging ways. The opposition that the film experienced serves as a poignant example of when a category becomes a limitation.

About the Speaker

Michael B. Gillespie is an Assistant Professor of Film in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts, School of Film, and Department of African American Studies at Ohio University. His research focuses on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, visual historiography, global cinema, and genre theory. He is completing a manuscript entitled Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film and co-editing two volumes, Black Cinema Aesthetics Revisited and New Chester Himes Criticism.

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