Recidivism is a real problem for those who pass through the criminal justice system in America. Of course one factor to this is issue is the fact that some people are just bad and the punishment of incarceration is temporary setback between capers. There are those that actually feel remorse for their past crimes that try to learn new skills while serving their sentence with the intent of never returning to the claustrophobic cells. Upon release, however, they’re greeted with a difficult path back into society. There’s the stigma of being an ex-con, stern parole officers that see no difference between an earnest effort and someone who has mastered the art of bullshit, and always those voices from the past trying to pull them back into the life they’ve sworn to leave behind. The struggle to build a life after prison is the subject of Chapter & Verse, the film from director Jamal Joseph. It’s a modest little drama that moves with at a brisk pace with plenty of laughs to cut the tension as it tells the story of an ex-con trying to reclaim control of his life in Harlem.
Lance (Daniel Beaty) has just been released from prison, having served eight years of a ten-year sentence. He currently lives in a halfway house with a curfew and is frequently subjected to drug tests. While incarcerated, Lance studied computers and has accumulated an impressive set of skills. However, his troubled past has made it difficult for him to find employment in the field in which he’s studied. Eventually Lance is forced to take whatever job he can get, and that’s at a food kitchen working for the stern yet somewhat sympathetic Yolanda (Selenis Leyva). At first Lance’s job is simply cleaning but necessity forces Yolanda to trust Lance with delivering the food to various apartments around Harlem. It’s on one delivery that Lance meets Maddy (Loretta Devine), a widow that lives with her grandson Ty (Khadim Diop), a teenager who is befriending the wrong crowd. Following a contentious start to their relationship, Maddy and Lance build a friendship and the ex-con helps the grandmother learn a bit about computers. As Lance becomes more and more acclimated to life on the outside that he starts his own computer repair service out of the back of a barbershop owned by Jomo (Omari Hardwick), a former gang associate trying to make an honest living himself. But there’s always that unsavory element in the vicinity of Lance, and this young generation of gangsters represent a threat to the new life that Lance is working tirelessly to build.
The lead performance by Daniel Beaty, who co-wrote the film with director Jamal Joseph, is a quiet performance but one that is powerful due to the subdued nature of Beaty’s screen presence. There are no lengthy impassioned speeches that deliver the movie’s message. Instead Chapter & Verse is a movie that delivers its messaging about second chances through the action of its characters. As Lance observes Ty falling into the gang life, he doesn’t lecture the young man at length. Instead it’s Lance extending a quiet friendship through little things like challenging Ty to perform a certain number of pull-ups. Everything about the demeanor that Beaty brings to Lance screams that this is a man desperately trying to carve out his own path and avoid returning to a life behind bars. One scene where Beaty’s performance evokes an incredible level of tension without uttering a word has Lance stuck in an elevator as two young men smoke a joint. Fearing the secondhand smoke will lead to him failing his drug test, Lance squirms to avoid the intoxicating smoke, going as far as to attempt to climb out of the elevator as to stick his head out for a whiff of fresh air.
Counteracting the subdued performance of Deaniel Beaty is Loretta Devine, who injects a level of comedy to the film that livens up the story. Beyond just getting the film’s funniest lines and delivering them with aplomb, Devine brings a level of heart to the film and the relationship between Lance and Maddy is truly touching. You’d never expect the two characters to build this connection based on their first interaction, and yet the dynamic built between the two becomes the heart and soul of Chapter & Verse. All of which builds to the film’s emotional crescendo and reaffirms the honesty that elevates the film as the script by Beaty and Joseph avoids every single cliché.
There are countless films with social commentary on their mind that let the message obscure the story, and that never happens with Chapter & Verse. Jamal Joseph has crafted a story that places the characters first and allows the social commentary to emerge from the experiences we witness on screen. Chapter & Verse exudes so much empathy towards its characters without ever coming close to being overwrought in its drama. Second chances are hard to come by for those who have erred in their past, but as Chapter & Verse proves, it’s even harder to bring second chances fully to fruition.
A modest but moving drama about second chances, Jamal Joseph’s Chapter & Verse tells a subdued story of redemption that is led by two strong performance by Daniel Beaty and Loretta Devine.