Cycles can have a dichotomous role. For some, they may be rewarding, positive and exciting, lending itself to a repetition of the good in a seemingly never-ending loop of happiness. For others, they can be devastating, heartbreaking and tragic, driving one to the point of insanity at the endless circle of disaster. And unfortunately, it seems that African Americans are disproportionately and systemically pushed into the latter’s devastating path, leading to a horrific series of consequences.
Chapter and Verse tells the story of S. Lance Ingram, a reformed gang leader that is attempting to re-enter society after having spent eight years in Attica. Returning to his old stomping ground of Harlem, the hardworking and soft-spoken Ingram finds that economic opportunities are slim and the system’s compassion for ex-cons even slimmer. Out of options, Ingram agrees to do delivery for a food pantry after not being able to find a job with the computer skills he had learned in prison. During one of his trips, he meets and slowly befriends a strong-willed grandmother, Ms. Maddy, who is tasked with taking care of her 15-year-old grandson, Ty a seemingly rambunctious teenager who spirals into gang involvement.
Slowly but surely, Ingram begins cracking away at Ty’s tough exterior to reveal a caring, smart and talented artist and student who is yearning to break free from the chains of the gang. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Ingram must decide whether he will sacrifice himself to give Ty the opportunity he never had, or step back and see yet another young man be swallowed whole by the brutality of gang culture and violence, as he once was years ago.
Jamal Joseph’s Chapter and Verse earnestly examines the heart-rending dilemmas of the African American community in Harlem. In his second feature film, Jamal Joseph uses the singular story of Ingram to further explore the dynamics of African American life today in a world of institutionalized racism, mass incarceration, and relentless gang violence. Produced by Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua, the gripping tale is relentless in its pursuit of portraying an honest view of Harlem as it is today, and how it appears in the eyes of a former gang member who has been away for nearly a decade. And with an excellent formal and stylistic effort by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey, Chapter and Verse does wonderful work showcasing touching moments that single out the humanity and dire frustration felt by Ingram and on a larger scale, the stifled individuals within the African American community.
But with a choppy sense of editing, there are moments within the film that do not deliver the punch that they deserve. From Ingram’s constant run-ins with the hoodlums on the corner to the climatic showdown, the film’s editing at times felt strange and haphazardly done. Nonetheless, while some aspects of the editing seemed to need a bit more polish and finesse, it did not detract from the overall experience, nor did it slow down the pacing or narrative drive, particularly thanks to the tour-de-force acting.
Written and performed by the supremely talented Daniel Beaty, the Obie award-winning actor does a stellar job of showcasing the constantly revolving emotions of Ingram. Beaty is excellent as the protagonist, seamlessly hopping between quiet humiliation and steadfast determination at a moment’s notice. At times, Beaty is able to demonstrate disgust, anger, frustration, hopefulness, strength, and patience—all at the same time. Coupled with the exceptional Loretta Devine and remarkable newcomer Khadim Diop, the acting force in Joseph’s film is astounding, at times being the driving force behind the narrative.
Together with the strong direction by Jamal Joseph, Chapter and Verse works on many levels beyond being a riveting tale of second chances and begrudgingly belonging to the shackles of a fixed society. Joseph’s film is a strong condemnation of a broken system, one in which the American dream is only perceivable and attainable by a select few. With racist bullies, condescending parole officers, raucous gang members, and profiling police officers, it is a wonder that Ingram had been able to stay sane for as long as he did. Ingram inevitably realizes that he is stuck to the cycle of despair—a cycle that so many African Americans just like him face on a daily basis across America. Determined to not have one more soul added to the pyres, Ingram sacrifices his own begotten freedom to allow Ty the chance to walk free and live the life that he knows he will never attain.
High recidivism rates are almost given due to the stern, asinine and pedantic procedures of post-prison life. From constant drug tests to mandatory curfews, convicts are frequently treated as sub-human, still having to have their freedoms smothered by the cold boot of methodical oppression. With the blemish of “convict” on one’s record, an individual has little chance to find a steady job and work themselves into a productive member of society. Therefore, Ingram’s upsetting continuation of cyclical involvement within a broken structure is heart-wrenching, enraging and depressing. But the narrative silver-lining is that Ty will have the chance to pursue his dreams of artistry, a sacrifice that Ingram is more than willing to give to save Ms. Maddy’s young and confused grandson.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Chapter and Verse is a powerful second feature film from Jamal Joseph who has proven now more than ever that he is not only a capable director, but a great storyteller as well. Save for a few editing blunders which feel awkward at times, Chapter and Verse is a commendable effort. But coupled with the film’s strong performances, excellent pacing and beautiful cinematography, Chapter and Verse is a well-crafted work that speaks to the plight of the African American community in today’s hegemonic world of systemic racism. Jamal Joseph has an extremely busy schedule being a professor, activist, writer, theater director, producer and so much more. But thankfully, the hardworking filmmaker never rests on his laurels and we will likely be seeing him again soon with yet another gripping tale.