It may take some effort to locate a theater showing Chameleon Street, in which Wendell B. Harris Jr. makes a dynamite debut as writer, director and star. Keep trying. Shot for peanuts in Harris's native Michigan, the film is based on the true story of Douglas Street, a black salesman who posed as a Detroit lawyer, a Time reporter, a French exchange student and a Harvard-educated surgeon until the law caught up with him.
What sounds like a pat TV docudrama is transformed by Harris into something witty, provocative and disturbing. It's more than Harris's movie-star looks and Barry White growl that draw us in. He examines why a man with the intelligence of Street feels compelled to pretend he is someone else and why others are so eager to believe him. The film addresses issues of race, economics, sex, anger and pride in ways that are both savagely funny and poignant. Harris is more than a promising talent; he may be a significant one.