In many Black communities, there is a constant road to redemption. In Harlem, a historic neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan, former Black Panther 21 member turned film director Jamal Joseph tells his hometown’s beautiful and disturbing past and present in relation to gang violence, family bonding, and survival.
Joseph’s new film is titled “Chapter & Verse” in reference to bible scriptures and also street slang, meaning knowing the “ins and outs” of a community until revealed whether it is good or bad.
Activist and playwright Daniel Beaty stars in the independent film, and helped Joseph create it. Beaty plays S. Lance Ingram a former gang leader of “118th” who used to go by the name “Crazy L.” After serving eight years in Green Haven Correctional Facility he is released, but still has to battle to stay out of harm’s way in order to secure a better future.
Joseph said he wanted to capture the image of the “third man,” based on statistics regarding the incarceration of Black men which show that one in three will go to jail at some point in their lives.
“I wanted to do a real human portrait of the third man,” he said. “I’m the third man in my family because I’ve been in prison. Beaty’s father and his older brother were the third, both of them have been to prison. Those are our sons, grandfathers, uncles. Harlem is like the unofficial Black capital of America. Wherever there’s a Black community you see the same things in terms of incarceration and trying to figure out how to keep our families together.”
Lance begins the film on probation, living in a half-way house under the supervision of his parole officer.
Without much chance of securing a job despite having two computer certificates under his belt, he ends up working at a food pantry for supervisor Yolanda Reyson (Selenis Leyva of “Orange is the New Black”).
“Part of why we do that in the film is because one of the biggest challenges of mass incarceration is how hard it is to get a job after you get out,” said Beaty. “It’s really a set up because if you can’t find some way to support yourself like Lance is able to do, then you go back to what you know which often causes people to go back into the system.”
Lance develops a family bond with an East Harlem grandmother named Miss Maddy James, played by Loretta Devine. They meet during one of his routes delivering food to senior citizens.
Miss Maddy’s grandson Ty (Khadim Diop) gets involved in a gang, and Lance sees Ty as a reflection of himself since he was once in a gang, and begins to look out for Ty’s best interests.
The film also stars Omari Hardwick, who plays Jomo, Lance’s former gang partner and friend. Lance crosses paths with him a couple of times before they reconnect and he learns that Jomo is a changed man himself, as he owns a barbershop called “Soul Kuts.”
In one scene, Jomo takes Lance to the “Concrete Jungle,” a place where ex-cons, bartenders, musicians, firefighters who range from 30 to 50 years old gather for friendly pull-up competitions and to network amongst each other.
One leader of the “Concrete Jungle” is Rome, played by Bryonn Bain. He acts as the foundation for uplifting Blacks in Harlem.
Despite Harlem’s role as a cultural landscape for African-Americans, parts of the neighborhood such as Central Harlem and East Harlem have seen Caucasians claim territory as their new home. The resulting gentrification has forced Blacks to migrate elsewhere or adapt to a place that is barely recognizable.
“Chapter & Verse” captures that moment as Lance has to adjust to new standards of a place he once called home.
“Now what’s happening, is the contradiction is right here with gentrification,” said Joseph. “It just makes you feel more trapped living in your own community.”
Lance’s bond with Miss Maddy becomes so close that she volunteers him to take care of Ty and her granddaughter Shay (Gabrielle Rembert) after learning that she is very ill. She gives him $72,000 to do so, but he refuses until Ty runs into trouble with the “Gunnaz” after attempting to leave the gang. Lance faces the prospect of surrendering his dream of being a free man for the sake of Ty.
“There’s a jumping in and a jumping out of a gang,” said Beaty. “To jump in, there is usually some act of crime or violence to prove your loyalty to the gang. Once you decide that you no longer want to be a part of it, then there is the same type of act.”
Initially expected to be released in September 2015, screenings of “Chapter & Verse” will be held Feb. 3 and Feb. 10 in Harlem, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta in select theaters.
“I’m now very glad that the film is coming out at this time,” said Joseph. “People can really get to feel the humanity of our characters and hopefully be motivated for some kind of discussion and action.”