Film Review: Chapter & Verse

The utter realness of this story and the way it has been handled is the resonating strength of Jamal Joseph’s gripping, affecting study of survival in today’s Harlem.
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Lance Ingram (Daniel Beaty) walks the still sometimes mean streets of a gentrified Harlem, delivering food to the aged and afflicted—the only job he’s been able to land, despite his computer skills, as an ex-con/gang banger. Despite temptations, he manages to stay on the straight and narrow, reporting nightly to his halfway house and only buying weed to help someone out. That someone is one of his deliverees, Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), diagnosed with cancer but still mighty spunky. Her grandson Ty (Khadim Diop) has drawing talent, but finds it hard to keep aloof from the neighborhood street gang which constantly demands his loyalty, or else. It becomes Ingram’s mission to keep the kid, like himself, on the right side.

Chapter & Versedirector/co-writer Jamal Joseph is himself a respected writer/educator, who was incarcerated for a decade for his involvement with the Black Panthers. To the film he brings a rare authenticity, as well as deep, unusually honest emotionalism, which keeps the viewer absorbed and caring intensely for the characters. Hollywood treatments of urban life can be too glossy and overtly violent, while indie approaches, although undeniably sincere, are often stymied by uncertain filmmaking and aesthetics. Joseph neatly avoids both hurdles, and his camera placement and cutting are highly adept, telling his episodic tale in a pleasingly straightforward fashion. He’s very good with actors, too, and apart from some overplayed moments on the subway, there’s not a false note from his entire cast. They help him create an accurately drawn portrait of schizophrenic Harlem right now, with longtime residents still struggling to make ends meet and often falling between the cracks, surrounded by white yupsters consider buying million-dollar condos in this now “hot” former ghetto.  

Stage actor Beaty, a Yale graduate, co-wrote the script, and makes a highly impressive and humane film debut. Big and buff, he is, however, a gentle giant, who has learned and paid and is continually challenged but somehow remains resolute. We see Ingram’s roots when it is revealed that the near-comatose old homeless man on the street is his father, and the scene between them is touching beyond measure. I’ve rarely seen a performance in which an actor listened so intently and effectively—and that, as any serious performer knows, is the absolute keystone of good acting. Devine—one of Broadway’s original Dreamgirls—gives her best onscreen performance to date. Her kewpie-doll face and little-girl voice are used for more than mere comic effect here, and she is both raucously funny and heartbreaking, with a nice, teasing chemistry with Ingram, that forms the real (platonic) love story at the heart of this film.

Strapping Omari Hardwick is very appealing as Ingram’s old buddy, who has given up running the streets to open a barber shop, and his swaggering one-scene courtship of Selenis Leyva, excellent as Ingram’s no-nonsense but quite susceptible food-delivery boss, is both adorable and sexy.

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