Whatever happened to Wendell B. Harris Jr.? It’s a question that might be asked with greater frequency if only more people had heard of the 1990 winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Indeed, of all the post-Sundance disappearing acts — and there have been many — Harris’ may be the most intriguing, in large part because his debut (and, to date, only) feature film, Chameleon Street, is among the best and least known prize-winners in the festival’s 25-year history.
Arriving just one year after Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (see related stories) turned the heretofore triple-A Sundance into a major-league ball club, Chameleon Street was one of a crop of 1990 competition titles that heightened the excitement then building around the American independent-film movement. Also in the running that year were Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, the first films of iconic indie auteurs Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) and Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth), and eventual Audience Award winner Longtime Companion. But the jury, which included Soderbergh, Kathryn Bigelow and film critic Armond White among its members, reserved its highest honor for Harris’ ferociously original, mordantly funny take on the life of African-American con artist William Douglas Street, whose impersonations included a lawyer, a Time magazine reporter and a gynecological surgeon (performing three-dozen successful hysterectomies). Adding to the powerful impression made by the film was the fact that its charismatic, skin-shedding protagonist was played by none other than Harris himself.
For most of the two decades that followed, however, news of Harris was so scarce that one might have assumed the triple-threat writer-director-actor to be but the latest in Douglas Street’s series of chameleonic guises. He appeared only twice more as an actor — in Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) as the FBI agent who smells something fishy in Jennifer Lopez’s story, and as a college professor in the 2000 Tom Green comedy Road Trip. Meanwhile, unlike many of his Sundance contemporaries — some of whom continued to trudge forth in the indie trenches, some of whom graduated to Hollywood features or segued into television — Harris amassed no additional writing or directing credits. As for Chameleon Street, it grossed just over $200,000 during a small 1991 theatrical release by the Maine-based distributor Northern Arts Entertainment (after the film’s sales agent botched a prospective meeting with Harvey Weinstein) and, like its maker, soon faded from the scene. Until its belated DVD release in 2007, the film was available only on an out-of-print VHS edition.
This year, Harris is returning to Sundance — not with a new film, but with Chameleon Street, which screens alongside Sex, Lies, and Videotape in the festival’s From the Collection sidebar program. It’s a fitting, if altogether ironic juxtaposition, says Harris, speaking by phone from his Flint, Michigan home, given the divergent career paths taken by him and his old pal Soderbergh. “You know, he’s living the life that, as a child, I outlined for myself,” says the 54-year-old filmmaker, whose eureka moment occurred when he was all of 4, sitting in his father’s medical office on a Saturday afternoon, watching a black-and-white movie flicker across the television screen.
“I’m watching this thing and I’m seeing this guy go through all these emotional changes and doing all these things — getting in and out of cars and kind of being rough with women and firing guns,” he says. “All of a sudden, I just understood that this was something that you can put together, you can rehearse it until you get it just right, and then you can show it to people. I could tell it wasn’t something that had been made recently, and I knew that this was going to be what I would spend my life doing. It turned out that I was watching James Cagney in The Public Enemy.”
Soon thereafter, Harris began inventing fanciful stories, which his mother would type out as he dictated them to her. “By the age of 12, I had already outlined my first 25 movies that would be completed by the age of 30,” he says. “I’ve still got the notebook.”
As a teenager, Harris, who says he’s always thought of himself as an actor first and foremost, attended Michigan’s prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts — years in which he also indulged his love of cinema at college film societies in Flint and nearby Ann Arbor. It was at one such screening that he first met fellow Flint native Michael Moore, who, Harris recalls, “had the longest ponytail I’ve ever seen on anybody — hair literally down to the crack of his behind.” Harris then moved to New York and enrolled in Juilliard, where his classmates included William Hurt and Mandy Patinkin. Though he hung around Manhattan auditioning for a while after graduating, acting jobs were scarce, at which point he decided to head to Hollywood and try his luck at getting on the writing staff of the groundbreaking Norman Lear sitcom Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (which receives a memorable homage in Chameleon Street).
“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 …
Harris has come so close to finishing Arbiter Roswell on several occasions that the project has cost him other work, and maybe even his marriage. “One of the reasons that my ex-wife divorced me, I think, is because I turned down roles on Broadway and also in film,” he says. “I was offered a role in a Broadway musical in 2003, which I turned down because I thought I was about to get the backing [for Arbiter Roswell] and I didn’t want to commit to a seven-month contract for a Broadway show that would interfere with that.” Today, Harris says, he needs roughly $90,000 to complete post-production — something he hopes his encore appearance at Sundance may help to facilitate.
“When Robert Redford is lauded for what he has done since 1984, that’s very real, because independent filmmakers are like the poor and needy that Jesus Christ talked about,” Harris says. “We’re the ones that are kicked to the side and treated like the lepers we are not.”
Screens at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival on Friday and Saturday, January 16 and 17.