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“I thought that was the most advanced TV show ever,” says Harris. “So I went out there and submitted four shows that I wrote and they told me, ‘Thanks but no thanks, but we really think you’ve got a lot of talent.’ Boy, if you had a dime for every time you get a rejection that says ‘You’ve got a lot of talent,’ you could make a movie on that budget.”
After a stint managing Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard while going on another round of fruitless auditions, a discouraged Harris returned home in 1979, where, at his parents’ suggestion, he opened a video-production studio, Prismatic Images, with the long-term goal of making an independent feature film. In the beginning, wedding videos and Michigan Lottery commercials were Prismatic’s bread and butter, but when Harris came across a 1985 Detroit Free Press article recounting the stranger-than-fiction adventures of Doug Street, he knew he had found the material for his first movie.
Shot on the streets of Flint in the fall of 1987 — the same time Moore was filming Roger & Me (the two films shared a cameraman) — Chameleon Street unfolds as a series of stylized vignettes in which the debonair, erudite Street, having abandoned a dead-end job in his father’s burglar-alarm company, perpetrates his elaborate frauds on a public all too willing to take him for whatever he appears to be. Money is Street’s ostensible motivation, though a strong sense of racial disenfranchisement simmers just beneath the movie’s surface, culminating in a remarkable scene in which Street educates a loutish white bar patron in the proper grammatical usages of the word “fuck.” Throughout, Harris deploys Street’s story with formidable narrative economy and formal invention, including Godardian narrative ruptures and jackknife shifts in tone from Swiftian satire to George Romero-like horror show. It remains one of the standout American movies of the 1990s.
As it turns out, Harris didn’t exactly vanish into the ether after Chameleon Street, but rather decamped once again for Los Angeles, where he descended into what is commonly known as “development hell.” Like many a Sundance alum, he took meetings all over town, with everyone from Jane Fonda to Steven Spielberg, many of them concerning a proposed Chameleon Street remake that was variously set to star Will Smith, Sinbad and Arsenio Hall. He wrote a script called Negropolis, a Blazing Saddles–style satire set in ancient Rome that would, in Harris’ ideal version, have featured Bill Murray as Hercules, Howard Stern as Alexander the Great and Oprah Winfrey as Cleopatra. Finally, he landed a development deal with producer Jerry Weintraub, who commissioned him to write a screenplay based on the alleged 1947 flying-saucer crash in Roswell, New Mexico. By that time, Harris told film programmer Mike Plante in a 2007 interview for the online film magazine Cinemad, a joke had begun to circulate throughout the industry: “All you have to do to get a production deal in Hollywood today is be black, male and NOT Wendell Harris.”
When I ask Harris why he thinks none of his Hollywood projects came to fruition, he tells me the answer is as simple as two words: Tyler Perry. “You take a look at the work of Tyler Perry and you take a look at the unproduced work of Wendell B. Harris Jr., and I think that you can put together your answer.” While he’s always had critics — and those audiences lucky enough to have seen Chameleon Street — on his side, Harris says that he seems “to make institutions quiver or quake. The polite thing is to say, ‘We don’t know how to market him,’ but there’s something else going on, and it’s connected to why, for example, Tyler Perry is so embraced and his vision is funded, whereas the vision of Wendell B. Harris Jr. is, on some level, anathema.”
Still, Harris is quick to point out that he hasn’t exactly been twiddling his thumbs in the 14 years since he returned to Flint and Prismatic Images. Using the research for his unproduced UFO screenplay as a starting point, he’s spent most of the past decade-and-a-half working on Arbiter Roswell, a feature-length documentary comprised of interviews with key Roswell participants, reams of archival footage, and a smattering of scripted dramatic scenes. One of those, featuring Soderbergh as a man in a hotel room telling the story of Belshazzar’s feast from the Book of Daniel, appears as part of a 30-minute Arbiter Roswell “trailer” included in the special features of the Chameleon Street DVD — not that many people have seen this either. Originally set for release by DVD label Home Vision Cinema, Chameleon Street was placed on the back burner when Home Vision was acquired by Image Entertainment, which forced Harris to pay the film’s restoration costs (and the DVD packaging) himself — expenses, he says, that just about bankrupted his company. Harris also claims that Image sent out a total of 60 preview DVDs and press kits before announcing it had maxed out the Chameleon Street marketing budget, calling to mind the old riddle: If an unknown indie movie falls in the Netflix forest ...
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