Thursday, January 27, 2011
Interview with Wendell B. Harris Jr.
Wendell B. Harris Jr. is the mastermind behind the groundbreaking 1990 film CHAMELEON STREET. I had a few questions for the writer, actor, director and he graciously answered them. This was truly a great interview. His answer to my first question is why we at ActNow do what we do. We want to present "relentlessly sensitive human beings." Thank you Wendell for answering all my questions with pure honesty.
Great interviews keep me motivated and stimulated -- once again I thank you!
I hope to see you at the showing of Chameleon Street on Wednesday February 9th at 9:30pm. Find me after the film so we can discuss it. I think it would be a great idea if you purchased your ticket now.
TANYA: CHAMELEON STREET won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1990 Sundance Festival and, despite not being distributed, had a very strong underground following. Why do you think people who have sought out the film are so passionate about it?
WENDELL: I believe the Style and, most importantly, the Content of CHAMELEON STREET are riveted to an unadulterated expression of Truth. Unadulterated Truth has never been the target when it comes to showing black people on screen. Never. We've been portrayed as Exotic ... Over-The-Top ... Freakish ... Highly Sexualized .... Buffoonish .... Incompetent .... Monstrous .... Uncultivated ... Venal and/or Anal ----- everything and anything except 3-dimensional, relentlessly sensitive human beings. The on-screen image of black men, women, and children has been subjected to the most sustained campaign of character assassination in history. They don't call it 'Culture Wars' for nothing. You know, Tanya, it was never my aim to make a radical film. Not at all. My only aim was to tell the audience on-screen in 90 minutes what Doug Street told me in countless interviews over 4 years. That was the only agenda. If you sit any black person down for 4 years and have them tell you in detail what they've been going through in these United States of America ... honey, you're going to come up with a CHAMELEON STREET. You're going to come up with something utterly compelling and fresh and modern and almost revelatory, because our story ... told simply and without embellishment ... has been rigorously eschewed and censored since THE BIRTH OF A NATION circa 1915.
TANYA: What challenges did you face by taking on a triple work-load -- writing, directing, starring?
WENDELL: There's a trick to it, Tanya. Actually, two tricks. They're not 'tricks' per se. More like 'truths' ... two truths. You want to know what they are --- ?
TANYA: Yes, please share.
WENDELL: It's kind of a secret, really. I should charge some ducats for this. The keys to successfully Writing - Directing - Acting in a single film are (1.) Circling. You've got to keep circling. You've got to keep walking around every choice, whether it's in the script, the lighting, the performances, the production design, everything. You never let up or let go. You keep on looking at every aspect of the film from every angle at all times. You've got to always keep in mind that you are doing alone what Hollywood has hired literally a hundred people - or more - to do. So, circle ... keep circling around everything. Keep walking around every decision with a critical eye ... looking for leaks, incongruities, abrasions, mistakes. Circle, baby, circle ... !
TANYA: Gotcha. And Number Two --- ?
WENDELL: (2.) Get the very best people to work with you. Fill every position with excellence. When you align with excellence, you invariably achieve excellence.
TANYA: Is there anything you would have done differently while making the film?
WENDELL: We initially negotiated with George Clinton to perform his song 'Bodyguard' in the Masquerade Ball Sequence. At the last moment, he canceled out.
WENDELL: (sigh) It was a contretemps over cash. Clinton demanded his payment of $10, 000.00 two weeks in advance. Our agreement had been he'd get the 10K upon arrival in Flint for the 3-day shoot. So, everything fell apart. If I had to do it all over again, I'd make a more strenuous attempt to keep Clinton involved. I had this whole dance sequence for Street and Amina worked out to Clinton's music which was so great. It was beautiful ... dancing in that Beast make-up to Clinton's 'Bodyguard'. The choreography was dumped after Clinton dropped . That's my one Major Regret vis-a-vis CHAMELEON STREET's production. But I'm not complaining, Tanya. 99.5 % of my vision made it into the film's final cut, so ... I'm grateful. I'm grateful.
TANYA: The inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article about a con man. What challenges did you face while creating this fictional character from a real person?
WENDELL: Frankly, I never viewed the real Doug Street as a template from which to extrapolate a 'fictional character'. On the contrary -- my main concern was to film what Doug told me.
TANYA: How do you think the Brooklyn audience of 2011 will react to this 1990 film?
WENDELL: Interesting question. I'm sure that they'll 'get it'. Only Hollywood distributors claimed to be puzzled by CS and how to market it. But audiences ALWAYS get it. Whether in Italy or Germany or Detroit or Atlanta ... audiences always get it. And they get all the hidden stuff, too. I filled the film with allusions and cultural references and secret signs. And yet, people always come up to me and say, ' Hey, I notice you put so-n-so in there or such-n-such .' People are so hip. So smart. Mainstream Media is always trying to sell this image of people as ' Dumb- Ass' this ... or 'JackAss' that ... or reality shows dedicated to proving human beings are the 'Stupidest' mouth-breathing twerps on the planet. I haven't found this to be the case, Tanya. Quite the opposite, in fact. I find that audiences are far, far ahead of the film fodder they're being fed. And they don't miss a thing. They sit there, watching, nibbling on their pop-corn ... and they can tell you after the first five minutes what characters are going to do what, and where the film is going ... in amazingly accurate detail! Of course, there are some references in CHAMELEON STREET that only black people get. Generally speaking. But one thing's for sure --- whites are beginning to catch up. It's pretty amazing. For example, 40 years ago you couldn't find a white person on the planet who knew what the word CHITLINS meant, let alone how they tasted. Today, you walk up to a Caucasion and say, ' Uh ... have you ever had chitlins ?' and their faces light up, ' Oh, yeah ...! Had some for breakfast this morning -- !! ' Those wily Caucasians ....!
TANYA: What are your feelings on today’s state of black films?
WENDELL: Wow ... that's a loaded question.
Let me put it this way ... black people are not fooled. We support what's going on and buy tickets to all this yang while simultaneously adhering to that advice Richard Pryor gave us 30 years ago i.e. ' Be glad for black people and support them when you see them doing anything ... !' And we do. But, having said that ... black people are not fooled by all this cinematic prestidigitation. My father died at the age of 90 in 2000 . He used to tell me what it was like in the Thirties watching Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best, Butterfly McQueen etc, etc. These were great performers but black people were not fooled. We knew THEN how our image was being botched, belittled, and bastardized, and we know it NOW. Listen ... when you start naming names, it sounds as if you're pin-pointing the problem. That's the implication, anyway. That's not what I'm about to do -- okay ? I'm going to name a specific project, but only as a means of defining An Entire Syndrome. Okay -- ?
WENDELL: In 1975 I saw Ntozake Shange's FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUFF four times on Broadway. Sometimes, people come up to me and say, ' CHAMELEON STREET changed my life .' Well, I'm here to tell you, Tanya -- that Broadway version of FOR COLORED GIRLS in the mid-Seventies most definitely changed my life. Now, it's 2011 and I recently saw the Tyler Perry-Oprah Winfrey film version of FOR COLORED GIRLS. Whose life is that going to change, Tanya -- ?? To quote the inimitable Bert Williams: " Nobody' -- ! I feel like some kind of 21st century reincarnation of Langston Hughes, reiterating that poem he wrote: ' They done taken my blues and gone ... ! ' They done taken my FOR COLORED GIRLS and gone .... ! That play is one of our major, major masterworks ... and yet, from a cinematic point-of-view, it's throat was slit. And yet, that slit-throat cinematic travesty is what the entire world is going to see from now until the Second Coming. They're not going to remember what Trazana Beverley did on that Broadway stage in 1975. They'll never know the power of that masterpiece. Wow ... that brings another poem to my mind. Who wrote that poem ... it goes, ' He doesn't know the power of his own black hand ' ... ? I forget. But that's the crux of it. They don't want us to know our power. And any film project that truly empowers, imbues, and enlightens will either have it's aesthetic throat slit, or, if it DOES get made without interference, it'll be suppressed.
TANYA: Are you currently working on any projects? Will NEGROPOLIS be coming to a theatre soon?
WENDELL : That's very sweet of you to ask. NEGROPOLIS is ready to shoot tomorrow if I had the money today. The first version was written in 1990 for Chris Tucker, Howard Stern, Louie Anderson, and Oprah Winfrey. Yes, Oprah. A little ironic, eh ... ? The budget back in 1990: $20 million. Today, however, NEGROPOLIS could be produced for 7 million. That's not a lot of money, to be sure ... unless you haven't got it. The parts I wrote for Oprah, Howard and Chris in NEGROPOLIS are so incredible, they make everything those three have done in film up until this moment look like dog-paddling . I am also in secret talks with the lovely and legendary author, Lore Segal, about the possibility of bringing one of her masterpieces to the screen. What a woman -- ! What a human being. And what an immaculate artist she is. Lastly, Tanya: My documentary entitled ARBITER ROSWELL is very close to completion. It chronicles much of what we've been discussing here today i.e. how Mainstream Media has always been consciously contrived in order to coerce, co-opt, and control the Masses. ARBITER ROSWELL also shows how certain 'real life' incidents ... such as the alleged crash of an 'alien' UFO near Roswell New Mexico in 1947 .... are actually contrived and sold to the public. Why ... ? Come see the film when it's released. I will say this, however: the Roswell Incident; the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and John Lennon; the induced disintegration and subsequent vilification of Mel Gibson --- all of these incidents that are still being sold to the public as spontaneous, real life happenings are, in reality, meticulously produced theatre pieces. Snuff Theatre Pieces ... more costly, more dangerous, and more heavily produced than a dozen Broadway productions of SPIDERMAN. Turn Off The Dark, indeed.