Antoine Fuqua's main career may be directing Denzel Washington actioners like The Equalizer and last year's remake of The Magnificent Seven, but he's evidently got a sideline producing and promoting low-budget, independent Black films. Case in point: Chapter & Verse, co-written by director Jamal Joseph and poet Daniel Beaty, who also plays the lead as an ex-con trying to integrate back into his community after his time in prison.
S. Lance Ingraham -- his father wanted to name him "Sir Lancelot" -- used to run the streets in Harlem. He went down for twelve, "being stupid," served eight, and is out on parole in a halfway house. If he can get a job, that is. He hits the streets looking anywhere he can use his two computer repair certificates. Maybe he earned them inside, but he seems to have had the knack for it already. But skills or no, nobody's hiring. Desperate to get any job, he starts working at a food bank, cleaning the kitchen and delivering meals.
That's how he meets Ms. Maddy (Loretta Devine), an older woman living in the projects, raising her grandson, Ty (Khadim Diop). Ty, for his part, has started to fall in under local gang leader B-Rock (Marc John Jefferies), and Lance worries the boy is about to make the same mistakes he once did. He sees Ty's talent for drawing and design, and wants to encourage him to pursue that, not fall into the life of the streets.
Of course it's hard going. Even an elevator ride to deliver a meal could put Lance next to a delinquent hotboxing the place, and if he fails the next drug test, halfway house manager Mr. Morris (Gary Perez) could violate his parole and send him back to Attica for months at the least. His boss at the food bank, Yolanda (Selenis Leyva) comes on friendly and helpful, but she might want more from Lance than a good day's work. His closest ally might be his old street buddy, Jomo (Omari Hardwick), who's already been in and out of the joint and now cuts hair and runs a "workout" crew.
Joseph may have cribbed from his own experiences, serving time in Leavenworth for his part in an armored car robbery, though his previous trial as part of the "Panther 21" might have added a political dimension to his case. Be that as it may, he wrote his first play in prison, and after leaving he started teaching theater and film, eventually becoming chair of Columbia University's graduate film program. Beaty got his B.A. from Yale, and his M.F.A. from the American Conservatory Theater, winning awards for his composition and poetry along the way.
Between the two of them, they've got more creative credits than most filmmakers ever dream of. Producers should be throwing themselves at this movie, but after a few festivals in 2015 it's only now getting a small theatrical and streaming release, in February, naturally.
It's a shame that so few people are likely to see Chapter & Verse. Scene after scene is infused with a poetry that lives and breathes the real streets the movie was shot on. Even the small-scale riot that breaks out against a young boy's arrest wasn't scripted; it just happened as the crew were filming, and they incorporated it more naturally than most verité documentarians. It's a movie from a community telling a story about that community, and it exudes an honesty that can't be denied.
Rating: 4 out of 5