The new film Chapter & Verse: A Harlem Story aims to do just that.
The film paints a humanistic portrait of what life is like for someone who has lived behind bars and then gets the chance to re-enter society and redefine his life. The story is told by someone who has lived that experience first-hand.
Jamal Joseph is the filmmaker behind Chapter & Verse: A Harlem Story. He is a Columbia University professor, but he also happens to be a former member of the Black Panther Party and a former prisoner at Leavenworth Penitentiary.
Chapter & Verse: A Harlem Story is Joseph’s depiction of the challenges the formerly incarcerated face when trying to rebuild their lives as free men. It does so through the eyes of its main character, S. Lance Ingram, a reformed gang member who must adapt to a changed Harlem upon his release. Ingram is played by Daniel Beaty, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Through Chapter & Verse: A Harlem Story, Joseph reflects upon what it means to forge your own destiny in an outwardly harsh society. He and Beaty shared with us their perspectives on what they hope the film will accomplish.
What do you want people to take away from this film? What do you want people to know or do to help?
Jamal Joseph (director, co-screenplay writer): There is a statistic that says one in three black men in Harlem (and communities like it) have either gone to prison or will wind up in prison. There are companies that research the 3rd-grade reading scores of black children to determine not how many schools to build, but how many prisons to build. I hope that the humanity and struggle of the lead character, Lance, in Chapter & Verse will help people to understand that the right to recapture one’s life and have a second chance is not just a moral obligation, but a human right. I would hope that it inspires people to find ways to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline through funding and mentoring programs. And that there will be open arms to help men and women coming out of prison to find work, housing, employment, counseling and dignity.
Daniel Beaty (actor, co-screenplay writer): I believe truly dimensional portrayals of the most vulnerable members of our society can be a core strategy to advancing social justice. When we look at issues like mass incarceration, we have to remember that we are not just dealing with statistics but human beings, the people they love, and the people who love them. The movie also explores the idea of how, even in our brokenness, we have a huge capacity to love one another and that love is a transformational force.
You’ve said that your time spent in the Black Panther Party and Leavenworth Federal Prison as the fire that forged your creative sword. What did these transformative experiences do for you? How did this come through in the film?
Joseph: Thanks to progressive thinking and a partnership between University of Kansas and Leavenworth, I was able to earn two college degrees while in prison. I studied creative writing and formed a theater company while in prison. This taught me the power of arts and education as tools for social change. Upon my release, I became an educator and creative artist, but also an example and a mentor to people willing to use education and/or the arts to re-imagine their lives and to transform themselves and the world around them.
What is the hardest part about starting a new life once you’ve left prison?
Joseph: The stigma attached to having been in prison. It makes it difficult to find housing, employment, and acceptance in society and the general public. Now that I’m a Columbia University professor, a published author, and produced writer-director, prison seems like a colorful line on my resume. But when it was the only line on my resume, there were many sleepless nights wondering if I could find employment or housing for my young family.
What is the biggest misperception our society has about formerly incarcerated persons? How do you hope to shatter that perception?
Joseph: That formerly incarcerated people are hardened criminals waiting for an opportunity to lie, steal, or harm. The truth is that formerly incarcerated people who are given the opportunity for education, job training, and meaningful lives are the best employees and neighbors that one could have in their community. The best way to shatter the perception is to actually spend time and talk to a formerly incarcerated person to get to know them. There is a movement to eliminate the box — meaning remove the checkbox on job and housing application that asks if a person has spent time in prison. Allow them to at least make it to the interview stage, so that one is not looking at a rap sheet, but a human being who is trying to rebuild their life and who would really appreciate a second chance.
What advice do you have for anyone want to reset/restart their life?
Joseph: Find a support network: Friends, family, agencies, counseling, mentoring, and positive peer groups. When applying for work, school or looking for any kind of help, don’t get discouraged by the 9 “no’s” because on the 10th time, the “yes” will come. Finally, you must truly believe that there’s no expiration date on dreams.
Chapter and Verse is currently playing in New York at MISTHarlem (purchase tickets here). It will be released in select cities soon.
WATCH THE TRAILER: