Interview with CHAPTER AND VERSE writer/director Jamal Joseph
Jamal Joseph is a fascinating man. I don’t know him personally, since the only time I’ve spoken with the filmmaker was over the phone recently to discuss his new film “Chapter and Verse” for twenty minutes. It became clear right away in our interview that Joseph is a patient and focused conversationalist, but the more I learned what he’s experienced in his past and what he’s doing now, the more interesting he became. Not only is he a film director, but he’s also an acclaimed author, a film professor at Columbia University in New York, a community leader and an activist. He also spent years in jail for his involvement in the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Front, where he earned two college degrees and wrote his first (of five) plays. He’s the kind of guy who makes you reaccess your own life and wonder “What have I done?” or “What am I doing?”
He’s also a 2008 Oscar-nominee for his work on the song “Raise It Up”, from the movie “August Rush”, which earned a spot in the Best Song category that year. That’s something I discovered after our chat, but in no way did it surprise me, since he comes across as a guy who has seemingly done it all (and continues to do it all) and yet remains a very observant and humble individual.
“Chapter and Verse” has recently received a limited release in Harlem, New York (fittingly so, since it is a Harlem Story) and is now making its way to other cities. It’s a film that follows S. Lance Ingram, or just “L” (played by Daniel Beaty, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joseph), who’s looking to make a life for himself after recently getting released from prison after an eight year sentence. Returning to his old stomping grounds in Harlem, the former gangbanger is trying to make sense of a world that has transformed. He’d just like to lay low, get a job working on computers and avoid getting into any trouble with his parole officer, while staying in a halfway house. He winds up getting a job washing dishes and making deliveries for a soup kitchen and soon finds himself reluctantly opening himself up to people. This finds him realizing the positive impact he can have in his community, as he tries to prevent himself from defaulting to anger and violence to get by in a relentless and unforgiving environment.
The film, which also stars Loretta Devine (“Waiting to Exhale” and “Lottery Ticket”), Omari Hardwick (currently in Starz “Power”) and Selenis Leyva (“Orange is the New Black”), feels like it’s coming from a personal place, of knowledge and wisdom. After its release in Harlem last weekend, “Chapter and Verse” opens wider in Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta this weekend. It’s certainly one of the more authentic independent films I’ve seen recently and my thought-provoking conversation with Jamal Joseph had me appreciating it even more. Joseph is a deep soul and an empathetic artist. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did conducting it….
David J. Fowlie: Your film feels very personal and knowledgeable of the lives of the characters we see. How much of the story was based on your own experiences?
Jamal Joseph: Well, much of it is. When we walked down the streets of Harlem, we noticed the gentrification – you know, really cool buildings, expensive buildings – and as Daniel and I were sitting around in my living room, we realized that I’m the third man in the room and, Chris Parker, his older brother, was the third man, so we started to write from these experiences. I spent as total of nine and a half years in prison, as a result of my involvement in the Black Panther Party and when I came out from my last day, which was close to six years ago, a lot of what Lance is going through, I experienced….trying to get a job, dealing with your parole officer, trying to have a sense of identity and purpose, in a society where black men are marginalized and black men who’ve been to prison are even more marginalized.
So, a lot of those experiences, those interactions with the young gang kids, trying to find a job, trying to make some re-connections, those right out of my own experiences.
DJF: Well, it definitely shows – you know, even though there are elements in this movie that are familiar, like a prisoner trying to get back on his feet after getting released or teens getting influenced by and pulled into gangs, I feel like there are moments throughout this movie where we see the humanity of these characters. In particular, the way L interacts with his parole officer – every time his parole officer calls him over, there is this feeling of dread, like, “What now?” or “I’m busted”. There is also that scene between L and the young teen Ty, when they are people-watching on the street corner after they’ve started a pretty good friendship and he asks Ty, “What are their stories?” pointing to the people around them and “What is your story?” Can you talk about those two specific scenes and interactions?
JJ: So, the first one, in terms of L’s interaction with his parole officer, there’s this feeling – and this is whether you’re in the halfway house or you’re on parole – that being on parole and parole officers remind you every step that you’re still doing time. They just have you on a longer leash. You’re still a prisoner, you’re just serving your time on the street. Every time you walk into a visit with your parole officer, to an appointment – even if you know you’re doing the right things, you have a job, you’re taking care of your family, you’re not using drugs – there’s a feeling that something can come up and they can put the cuffs on you and you’re going back to prison. And there’s also a feeling that, if everything is not going well, that if you try to explain it to them, they’re not going to believe you because they pride themselves on knowing the game that prisoners try to run or people on parole and that you can still get locked up.
So, there’s always that kind of tension. You know, I remember my parole officer showing up unexpectedly at my home for a house visit. It would be funny sometimes, because I would always be there and then sometimes I would open the door and I would have my baby, you know, my son who was a baby then, in my arms. So, there was that feeling. I’m here, I’m home, my wife is in the other room, I’ve answered the door with a baby in my arms – and you still can cuff me and take me away. There is the idea that they are the embodiment of state power and that state really considers you their property. So, we wanted to play that tension in a very real way.
There’s the scene where Lance is sitting with Ty and their just looking at people passing by and he’s asking about his hopes and dreams. That scene was meant to capture that feeling that we all have when we’re little kids and we’re dreaming. Sometimes we play the game of what it would be like to be someone else, to live in that particular building, eat in that restaurant, ride in that car and have those kinds of friends. Lance had those times when he was little and would sit around dreaming a world beyond Harlem, beyond gang life, beyond, you know, an absentee father being in and out of foster homes. And so he sits and has a real great moment of connection where he plays this game with that young man and then to turn that game around and ask him how he sees himself in the future. It’s kind of a pure moment – again, something I share with young people that I counsel. I run a youth program in Harlem called Impact, that uses the creative arts and leadership training to empower young people. With my own children, when they were young, we would play that game of dreaming, looking at people’s lives and being the author, the narrator of your own life.
DJF: Yeah, I think that those two scenes and interactions really elevated the film above anything else I’ve seen in regards to the black experience with life after prison and on the streets with gangs. You’re really giving us something here that resonates for anyone regardless of economic or social status, regardless of gender or race. I feel it was very powerful.
JJ: Oh, thank you so much. I mean, I think that good storytelling does that. If we hear a story, whether it’s Aesop’s Fable or fairy tale, or we hear a story that may have originated in China or Africa, if you find the truth of the character and the truth of the experience, you’ll find a connection to it. When I’m writing and directing, there’s a quote from Ruby Dee, who passed away, you know the great actress/writer/activist Ruby Dee, that said about Langston Hughes – I had done a film about Langston Hughes, the African-American poet – and she said, Langston was like a giant ear. He was like a giant ear and a giant heart. He could walk through Harlem and walk through different communities and hear exactly what the people were saying. I thought, what a wonderful way to describe storytelling and that’s the kind of storyteller that I want to be. Really just listen to the lives of people and hear their hopes, their dreams and their concerns. To try and hear and feel their laughter and tears and try to create characters that embody that. So, that’s what we tried to do with “Chapter and Verse” and the kind of filmmaking and storytelling that I’m most interested in.
DJF: It’s funny that you mention that – a giant ear – because I feel we could use a whole lot more of that in the world today, where if we could just be silent and listen a lot more and I think that that’s what we see in the main character, played by Daniel Beaty. He’s very interesting – it’s not like he’s angry all the time or mouths off at people (although there’s anger underneath, maybe moreso with himself), but I see him as someone who’s really taking everything in and is maybe kind of hesitant or observant. Did you have that conversation with Daniel about that characterization or approach?
JJ: Oh boy, you really hit on how we were trying to write the character and discover the character and then the way we talked about filming him. It’s the core of what Daniel’s character is. You know, we said, what is his super power? Characters, I believe, really well-developed characters, will have a particular super power or quality that we can focus in on. So, it doesn’t have to be that they can turn invisible or that they can fly, to have a super power in a character. And his super power is that he can see things that other people can’t see and understand it in a way that other people don’t understand and that’s exactly how we constructed it. So, there’s a lot of him observing.
I have to say, it’s a magnificent performance by Daniel, who has a tremendous stage background and has played Paul Robeson on stage brilliantly and can fill up a room with his ability to play multiple characters in his one-man show. He kind of just used all that talent and channeled that through his eyes and his body language to let you know that he’s feeling something every step of the way. And that’s how we talked about the character. We really talked about that during the writing and the rehearsal process, how we were gonna film those scenes.
DJF: Yeah, he’s a really intuitive actor and he’s a surprise to me. I’ve never seen him before.
JJ: Well, this is his film debut. He has an amazing, award-winning stage career and I was happy to be able to do it with him. We talked about the idea, because I wanted to be the person to bring him to broader audience. As people see “Chapter and Verse”, he’ll be doing a lot of film work.
DJF: Is that what led the two of you to work on the screenplay together?
JJ: Well, we had done some theatre work together. Me in a supportive role of what Daniel does theatrically. We have the same belief that the arts can be used for social justice and for healing – that is turning truth into power. How we explore people’s truth and how do we turn that truth into power. So, a theme in our work and the theme in “Chapter and Verse” is “how do broken people love each other” and we know that that is one moment at a time, from pieces back to wholeness. We knew that we wanted to make a film together that spoke to all those issues, that did it in a way that felt organic, that did it in a way that wasn’t hitting you over the head, but that did the job. At the end of the film, people would be thinking about a lot of these things – in their own lives and in the lives of others.
DJF: Very good. I wanted to talk about something that occurred this week. I saw “Chapter and Verse” the day before I sat in on a panel of local film critics here in Chicago, who were discussing the recent Oscar nominations being announced. There was talk about how this year’s nominees are “notsowhite” and wondering if this would be a one-off year or if a change would develop in the voting process. And one black critic shared that he’s seen a listing of the upcoming films this year and stated that none of them are black films. That kind of surprised me. I felt it was an incredible generalization or proclamation. It crossed my mind as being somewhat narrow-minded because I feel like films like yours have to be discovered and promoted. You have to seek them out and it’s up to the critics to let others know about them and let word-of-mouth do its thing. So, what do you feel about his statement and the state of black film currently in American cinema today?
JJ: There is a ways to go in terms of getting these stories told. Already this year we had a great story, “Hidden Figures” came out and there are other films that I know of from independent filmmakers that are going to be shot this year. I agree exactly with what you said, though. I think it’s our job to seek it out. I think it’s the job of the people who produce and finance films to know how critical – especially given the time that we’re living in now with the new administration, with what seems to be a feeling that it’s okay to be racist and to be divisive and to ignore the gains that have been made over the last fifty years with the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement and the Women’s movement and the LGBQT movement – and it’s really important to make sure these stories are sought out and told, not just for the good of any given community, the black, Latino or gay communities, but for the good of us as human beings.
In the same way, we know that to be well-read is to have read books from all different viewpoints and for all cultures. Someone came to me and said, “I’ve read every crime novel that’s every been written, I’m well-read”, but no, there’s the classics and contemporaries and poetry and this and this, have formed my tastes and shapes my views. The best example I could give of this is, I’m a professor at Columbia University and I read an application from one of the students years ago that said, “I never knew what my country really looked like,” – this is how they started their personal essay to want to be a screenwriter and a director – “until I gazed back at it from across the sea from a foreign land”. And I said, “Yes, this young person has stories to tell”. I think we have lives to live and stories to experience if we gaze at ourselves and our communities, from across the rivers and the bridges of our prejudices and there’s no more powerful tool for that than cinema and what I call a world compassion cinema.
DJF: I love that – I love everything you just said. I wish we had more time to talk Jamal. It’s been great talking to you.
JJ: David, thank you. The last comment is that this was produced independently by Cheryl Hill, my partner and a company called the Harlem Film Company. And it will be opening in Harlem on February 3rd and in Chicago and L.A. on February 10th. You can check out our site. Please support “Chapter and Verse” – not just for this film, but for what we were just talking about, for independent voices in cinema.
DJF: Without a doubt. Good luck and again, thanks for your time today, Jamal.
JJ: Thanks. You too. Positive thoughts.