CHAPTER AND VERSE (2016) review
written by: Jamal Joseph and Daniel Beaty
produced by: Cheryl Hill and Jonathan Sanger
directed by: Jamal Joseph
rating: R (for language, drug use, some violence and sexuality)
runtime: 91 min.
U.S. release date: February 3, 2017 (Harlem, NY) and February 10, 2017 (L.A./Atlanta/Chicago)
We go through our lives not realizing our potential to help those around us or fully realize what we have to contribute to those we encounter. The older we get, the more life we experience and it’s that life experience that we often overlook. We don’t realize how valuable our mistakes, failures and life lessons can be to others who are stuck in their own life situation, whether or not they realize it. Writer/director Jamal Joseph understands this though and his latest feature, “Chapter and Verse”, is a semi-autobiographical journey that follows a weary man who’s trying to move forward one day at a time, away from a past of bad decisions and cyclical self-destruction. The film injects a palpable authenticity and honesty to familiar situations and recognizable characters, lending a personal tone that acknowledges human conditions that deserve our attention.
Set in modern-day Harlem, New York, the story focuses on S. Lance “L” Ingram (a superb Daniel Beaty), recently released from a an eight-year stint in prison and currently looking for a semblance of a functional life. He has a place to live, a halfway house, but his constant supervision from his parole officer (Gary Perez) makes him feel like he’s still in prison. By day, L is working the streets, looking for a job, hopefully one involving computers since he became quire proficient with them while behind bars. Unfortunately, he’s finding that the presence of an ex-con and a black man, elicits immediate rejection from employers, leaving him no choice but to accept a job washing dishes and delivering food at a food pantry in the area. It’s a job.
He slowly connects with one of his clients, Miss Mandy (a pitch-perfect performance from veteran actress, Loretta Devine) he lives alone in her apartment as she tries to keep her teenage grandson Ty (an intense Khadim Diop) out of trouble. As L begins to teach Miss Mandy some basic computer skills – how to get online and shop – he notices how Ty is getting more and more pulled into the gang life, with so-called friends exposing him to drugs and challenging to violent recruitment tasks. L knows this life all too well, considering back in the day he was known as Crazy L from 118th and he begins to find a way to connect with and redirect Ty. He knows it’s a fine line though, since he used to be Ty and knows all too well how help from an adult who’s been there will be taken, so L has to tread carefully.
While he’s reconnecting with childhood friend, Jomo (a confident Omari Hardwick), who runs his own barber shop in the hood, L starts to earn the attraction of his boss, Yolanda (the alluring and playful, Selenis Leyva, “Orange is the New Black”) after continuing to prove himself reliable on the job. Despite a simmering frustration with himself and his past, L finds himself in line to get out of the halfway house and into his own apartment. Things are turning around. But, the more he develops a connection with Ty, the more he realizes that he may have to fall back to his old ways in order to sever the local gang from luring Ty back to their damaging behavior.
“Chapter and Verse” is a refreshing look at people in a black community who feel real. They are characters we can relate to regardless of our gender or ethnicity. They are people who want to find and maintain jobs, people who want to connect and people who want what’s best for their loved ones. They are also people who live with temptation, fear and the potential for bad choices. They are familiar to us, yet thankfully none of them feel stereotypical. Some of that has to do with the earnestness from the committed actors, but most of it is on the page. Joseph co-wrote this empathetic and touching screenplay with his friend and lead actor, Daniel Beaty and the two of them managed to create a complex and multi-faceted in L, which is needed to ground the film with a deliberate authenticity.
Thanks to Beaty’s fine work here, L comes across as an observant and knowledgeable individual who knows his demons, yet grows to understand how he can help others as the film unfolds. Beaty’s body language and facial expressions are nothing short of remarkable, subtly conveying how L feels like each good opportunity will be taken away from him just as soon as they’re presented. It doesn’t take dialogue to tell L is grateful for help that he gets from Jomo and the acceptance he feels from Miss Mandy, because Beaty says it all in how he silently responds to each situation and interaction.
Two scenes stand out that show the actors range – one is his interaction with his parole officer and the other is a pivotal scene with Ty. Joseph and Beaty emphasize the trepidatious dread of being called into the parole officer’s office. We pick up an obvious unspoken apprehension of “What now?” or “I’m busted” from L, that is mostly unwarranted, yet understandable considering his past experiences. When L and Ty are sitting at a street corner people-watching, L asks the teen what he thinks these people are thinking, what their lives are like, what their dreams are. It’s a casual moment that offers levity and poignant self-reflection for Ty, when L asks him what his hopes and dreams are and where he pictures himself in the future. These are interactions and conversations that any of us can have in life, which makes them all the more impacting and real.
Joseph deftly balances heavy material with humorous circumstances, knowing full well that “Chapter and Verse” has the opportunity to show the ups and downs life brings. Much of that balance can be seen in Beaty’s scenes with Devine’s Miss Mandy, who cautiously pulls L into her life, eventually accepting him as an extension of her family. Her character could’ve been write as an over-the-top diva or an outrageous matriarch, but credit once again to a screenplay that trusts its actors and the audience watching, we’re given a warm and vulnerable woman who approaches her own fears with an openness and strength that’s inviting to the characters around her and the viewers watching. Both Devine’s and Leyva’s characters are strong, independent women who offer a counterbalance to the stereotypical depictions we often see in black American cinema.
There’s an audience for the black stereotypes Tyler Perry dishes out each year, but I much prefer the characters that Joseph and Beaty are offering here. There are no hysterics here or cheap shots, just people like us. However, there’s an element in “Chapter and Verse” where it feels like Joseph tries to include too much, when a character that’s somewhat shoehorned into the storyline as L’s father shows up and feels more tacked on and rushed than the other characters in the film. I get where Joseph was going with the role, but it feels unnecessary just the same.
Nevertheless, this film deserves viewers beyond the expected black film audience, not to mention a wider release. That’s hard to pull off for any independent film, but still very important to champion films like “Chapter and Verse” that rise above what we’re used to, delivering a film that can enlighten and connect audiences, while touching on important and relatable situations and themes.