Returning to his Harlem hometown, an ex-con tries to make a fresh start, and help new friends, in Jamal Joseph’s assured low-key indie.
Stories about ex-cons attempting to reform their lives – and resist the temptations awaiting them back home – are a dime a dozen, and yet despite its familiarity, “Chapter & Verse” manages to make its material both fresh and authentic. There are some occasionally shaky aesthetics to be sure, but director Jamal Joseph’s indie has a strong sense of its place, characters and their codes of conduct, which helps elevate this superficially standard-issue tale about a man trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow after serving time behind bars. Blessed by executive producer Antoine Fuqua’s imprint, it deserves an audience during its limited theatrical run.
After eight years in the joint, Lance (Daniel Beaty, who also co-wrote the film) re-emerges in his native Harlem with two computer degrees but few employment opportunities. Thus, at the behest of his parole officer (Gary Perez) – who also finds him a bed at a halfway house – Lance settles for a job working at Yolanda’s (Selenis Leyva) food pantry. During one dinner-delivery outing, he meets (and has cabbage thrown at him by) Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), a single grandmother whose feistiness strikes Lance as endearing. Her grandson Ty (Khadim Diop), however, quickly rubs Lance the wrong way, given that he’s a pot-smoking delinquent whose thuggish gang friends, led by G-Rod (Justin Martin), remind Lance of his own criminal youth.
When Lance runs into his old stomping-ground mate Jomo (Omari Hardwick) on a playground, leading to a friendly pull-up competition, it appears that “Chapter & Verse” is going to present Jomo as the former comrade who convinces Lance to return to his troublesome old ways. Joseph and Beaty’s screenplay, however, eschews such clichés, instead presenting Jomo – who now runs a barbershop – as a symbol of redemption. Nonetheless, trouble remains ever-present, in the form of stray pot smoke that might lead to a positive DNA drug test result, and also via Yolanda, who isn’t above blackmailing Lance into serving as her boy toy.
Shot on location throughout Harlem, the film captures a genuine sense of New York City’s simultaneously laid-back vibe and electric atmosphere. The movie’s handheld camera often seems to be bobbing and weaving because it doesn’t know what else to do with itself, but the visuals are generally unassuming and assured. The score, full of both hip-hop songs and original compositions marked by jazzy horns, drums and piano, is similarly attuned to its setting, providing a fitting backdrop for Lance’s efforts to make something of himself.
With one slightly droopy eye and a stout frame, Beaty embodies Lance as a once-out-of-control man now determined to show self-control. His character is seemingly engaged in a constant act of internalization, and Beaty’s understated lead performance is nicely paired with that of Devine, whose brash-talking Miss Maddy brings vibrant energy to the mix, even if the script saddles her with a corny fate straight out of Melodrama 101. That turn of events does much to render the story’s final act creaky. Beaty’s easygoing rapport with Hardwick – a charmer with big-screen charisma to spare – is consistently believable, as is his more tough-talking banter with Diop’s wayward teen.
While the film is, from its earliest moments, clearly headed for a message-imparting finale, Joseph so persuasively dramatizes his action that he generates suitable suspense over exactly what that concluding lesson might be. In the process, he crafts a low-key saga about the lengths one must go to, and the sacrifices one must make, to attain a workable future – both for oneself, and for others.