Fathers and Sons: Jamal Joseph depicts redemption in Harlem in ‘Chapter & Verse’

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In the early 1990s, New York City’s only black mayor, David Dinkins, used anti-crime funds to establish Beacon centers in every school district, a landmark re-envisioning of the role of schools in the lives of students. The centers provided many services, and ensured that the children of working parents would not be left to fend for themselves after school. Dinkins once said that he felt he was “in charge of children, children I haven’t even met yet.” That assumption of responsibility and of paternity for his young constituents, from a politician who rose to prominence in Harlem, echoes through Jamal Joseph’s debut narrative feature, Chapter & Verse.

Opening in New York on February 3 and Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles on February 10, the movie contemplates fatherhood and step-fatherhood, and the plight of black boys with no fathers. Its protagonist is an unlikely paternal figure, a former inmate who goes home to Harlem and meets the boy he never expected to meet, the one who compels him to revisit his own fatherless boyhood.

During the on-location shoot in Harlem, Joseph’s diverse crew included a directing unit comprised of black men armed with walkie-talkies. Neighborhood children would often gather to watch the action. “Black boys would ask my crew: ‘What are you doing?’” Joseph says, in an interview at his 135th Street office. “Black men with walkie-talkies who aren’t cops are an unusual sight.” Instead of telling the children to move away, Joseph had the men explain their filmmaking roles, and invite the children to participate in them. “We would bring them closer,” he says. “Can you imagine what that meant?”

A former Black Panther, Joseph is a Columbia University film professor, screenwriter and author; he earned college degrees while serving time in Leavenworth. He calls himself a “brown man,” a mixed-race African-American and Cuban. Like Lance, his protagonist in Chapter & Verse, Joseph grew up without a father. So did his accomplished star, Daniel Beaty. “Daniel and I know what that ache feels like,” Joseph says, “and we know what it is like to have to heal it yourself.”

In Chapter & Verse, a title that suggests the film’s archetypal underpinning, Joseph crafts a heroic tale for Harlem. “Lance,” short for Lancelot, is a recently released ex-con who lives in a halfway house, in a room that looks very much like a prison cell. Lance cannot find a job, despite his skill at repairing computers. Like the knight of Chrétian de Troyes’s epic poem, he loves a woman who is married to another man. When Lance finally lands a job delivering meals to the elderly, he befriends one of his clients, Miss Maddy, who lives with her grandson Ty, a gang member in training. Finding the patterns of Harlem boyhood largely unchanged, Lance finally embarks on a perilous quest for identity and meaning.

Chapter & Verse is so intimate a portrait of a black man many of us know only as a statistic that one wonders while watching the movie if the story is about an uncelebrated, local hero. “Lance is inspired by a few really good men who I saw come out of prison and try to rebuild their lives,” Joseph explains. “Sometimes I witnessed this while I was in prison. A man I thought was going to make it would come back, not because he intended to, but because of the lack of family or the lack of services or because, culturally, what they were caught up in made them make a choice that sent them back.”

While Joseph’s film is very much about black men and boys, he pays homage to the role of mothers and grandmothers in black families through Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine in a wonderfully nuanced performance). “Miss Maddy is a combination of great women that I have known throughout my life,” the writer-director says. “She is my adopted grandmother Afeni Shakur, who just passed away and who was my big sister in the Black Panther Party.” (Shakur, a committed activist all her life and the mother of late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur—aka 2Pac—died in May at the age of 69.) Joseph also recalls the mentoring of the late Alice Arlen (Silkwood), a white screenwriter he met when he was a student at the Sundance Lab. “Alice was responsible for launching my career,” Joseph says, “and she was godmother to my children.”

If Joseph’s shadowy streets in Chapter & Verse, often seen in long shot, and heavy with foreboding, fail to evoke the more storied Harlem, his handsome knight, named for the one of legend who represents fine amor or “pure” love, restores it. “Lance, who never had a father, unexpectedly gets the family he never had,” the writer-director says. “He then takes on the role of the father for the son he didn’t have with the woman he loves.” Joseph refuses to shy away from the requisite bloodletting and street justice that are part of Lance’s quest, a fact that will prove problematic for some audiences. “I am really happy when an audience is outraged and saddened,” he says. “I want them to be and I want us to be.”