The film is directed by 64 year-old Jamal Joseph, a former Black Panther who is now a professor at Columbia University. Joseph spent several years behind bars himself after being convicted of a variety of crimes including the sheltering of members of the Black Liberation Army and Weather Underground involved in the infamous Brinks robbery and murders in 1981. During a prison stint in Kansas he became a playwright and has been active in film and theater since he was freed. His focus has very much been on the plight of black men in America.
“In the building where I raised my sons, of the black and Latino boys who were born around the same time, in this building, three are dead, three went to prison. Four did go to college, two of those being my sons.”
Joseph wrote the screenplay for Chapter & Verse with the film's star, a 41 year-old actor named Daniel Beaty. Both men live in Harlem. Beaty has an older brother who was addicted to crack and done time in prison. The brother is not Beaty's only family member who was incarcerated.
“My father has been in and out of prison sixty times-- six zero – over the course of my life. He was a heroine addict and also a dealer and committed a variety of crimes. So, I thought my sense of possibility was going to be limited by these models of black men that I had in my immediate life.”
Beaty plays a black man named Lance is living in a halfway house in Harlem. Again, director Jamal Joseph.
“We knew we wanted to do a film together, we knew we wanted it to be a Harlem story and we started talking about what story could we uniquely tell as black men living in Harlem and as black artists and activists. And we came up with this idea of doing a character study of a man coming home from prison. A strong man but a good man deep inside, trying to deal with so many forces that men coming home from prison deal with. And how does he take that journey with strength and dignity and meet those challenges.”
Lance ends up delivering meals for the food pantry and in that capacity he meets the other major character in Chapter & Verse, a terminally ill grandmother he calls Miss Maddy.
Her grandson Ty, a talented artist who has fallen in with a group of thugs. Lance does his damndest to discourage his involvement in the Harlem gang. And he endears himself to Ty's grandmother as described by Beaty.
“You know, in many ways he's a throwaway of society. But this woman believes in him. And she believes in his capacity and he discovers himself, maybe for the first time, through her love.”
The cast of Chapter & Verse is made up of prominent African-American and Latino stars of stage and screen. The grandmother, Miss Maddy, is played by Loretta Devine, who originated the role of Lorell Robinson in Dreamgirls on Broadway and won an Emmy for her work on Gray's Anatomy. Lance's boss at the food pantry is played by Selenise Leyva, one of the stars of Orange is the New Black. And Jomo, a gangbanger turned respectable small business man, is played by Omari Hardwick, who appears in the cable TV drama Power. Director Jamal Joseph says the film's message resonated with the actors.
“They knew the people we were talking about. They either had relatives or friends who had been to prison, who were trying to re-build their lives. And the humanity in which we told the story and the honesty made them say, “ I want to help tell this because I think this is more than just a piece of art, I think this is a piece of social commentary that I want to be part of.”
Chapter & Verse runs through Thursday, Feb. 9th at the MIST Theater in Harlem. On Feb. 10th it moves to a theater on 42nd Street and opens in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.