Finding Your Creative Value: Jamal Joseph on Chapter & Verse
Jamal Joseph on writing a film based on your own experience, the importance of comedy in drama, and not waiting for that big studio movie.
In Chapter & Verse, reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram (played by Daniel Beaty) returns to Harlem after a ten-year prison sentence. Despite getting a computer degree while in prison, Ingram is unable to find a qualified job and ends up delivering meals for a local food bank.
Ingram befriends Ms. Maddy (Loretta Devine), and through her meets boy whom he chooses to try and mentor. Through these new relationships, Ingram finds hope and starts to relearn the joys of life, despite his many hurdles from society.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Jamal Joseph about writing a film based on your own experience, the importance of comedy in drama, and not waiting for that big studio movie.
Can you share a little about your background, and how you became a screenwriter?
It was the outgrowth of my involvement in theater. I became involved in theater while I was a member of the young Black Panther Party in New York. There was also something called The Black Arts Movement, which was happening at the same time. So people were doing spoken word and theater. They were speaking about social justice issues and black pride issues.
As a young panther, I ended up serving time in Leavenworth prison for my involvement in the Black Panther Party.
I formed a theater company, which started as a small group to put on a play for Black History Month, but some of the Latino brothers came around, then the White brothers, and then the Asian brothers, so we had a multicultural Troupe de Power and a let’s-share-our-experiences kind of group.
We got really interested in film and watching film. I saw the power of writing in film. So when I was released from prison, I took some screenwriting classes and continued theater. Then I started writing smaller films that dealt with the Aids epidemic in the late 80s-early 90s.
That led to a fellowship at Sundance Directing Institute. I had a project, and I really realized the power of screenwriting and the power of film to tell a story.
In addition to your own experiences, what were some of the specific cinematic influences that inspired you to get into filmmaking?
One of the films I saw in Leavenworth was a film called The Brother From Another Planet, which was similar to The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was one of the first films from John Sayles (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Eight Men Out), and it was the story of a black man who was a slave. But the idea was that he was from another planet and running from white slave traders.
Joe Morton’s character was a mute, but he was still able to communicate. This film really blew my mind, because he was able to talk about cultural and social issues, while capturing life in a black bar and a black barbershop.
I got wrapped up in those images and it taught me how authentic you can be when bringing characters to life on the page and on the screen. These characters were authentic and they could talk about their problems in a real way.
Other influences are The Godfather, Spike Lee, and Martin Scorsese. All of these things inspired me to first take a look at what was happening on the page, but then also have the ability to create a living document, in terms of the screenplay. It’s more than just a movie, it takes the characters and the story and the dialogue, and makes sure they come alive on the page to make the filmmaker’s job easier. Then you can make it come alive on screen.
Can you explain the origin of the title your new film, Chapter & Verse?
Chapter & Verse is a biblical kind of term in black communities for someone who knows the bible really well. You may say, “Grandma knows the bible, chapter and verse.” She can quote any chapter or verse from the bible.
On the streets in Harlem, back in the day, if you knew the streets really well, people would say, “You know these streets chapter and verse,” hence the title. Our main hero, Lance, knows the streets that well, even though he’s trying to leave them.
How much of yourself is in the movie?
Chapter & Verse is heavily influenced by my experiences. It’s the story of a man getting out of prison and returning to Harlem after eight years. I returned to Harlem after almost six years.
Daniel Beaty, who lives in Harlem, co-wrote the script with me, and plays the lead role, S. Lance Ingram. His father spent years in prison. His older brother spent years in prison. We understood what it means after you’ve been incarcerated to try and come out and re-build your life.
It’s difficult to make new friends or new directions, and also stay away from those friends or things that put you in prison in the first place. We know what it’s like to be invisible, and when people are suspicious of you because you’ve been in prison.
Then there’s people like Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), who is just trying to raise her grandson. Some of these exchanges happened to me, and they’re portrayed in the film. Others are influenced by the stories of other men and women that I know. Many people have had to deal with the struggles of trying to have a second chance in life.
Despite the heartbreak in this film, there is still a great deal of comedy. How important is this balance?
In general, comedy—or pacing—in screenwriting, is really important. If you’re writing a drama that’s relentlessly serious, sad or angry, then it’s hard to keep your audience’s attention on that story. It’s like a roller coaster rolling on a straight line. With the comedy, you can let the audience step back to see the tragedy within the comedy.
When I was at Sundance, there was a directing-the-acting-workshop about character work. And I learned something that really influenced my writing and directing. Every character needs a little “angel inside of the devil” and a little bit of “devil inside the angel.”
I think that’s true in character work and the way they interact. It’s also true about the world of Harlem, which has been gentrified. There is comedy. There is humor. People laugh to celebrate their humanity. Sometimes, people laugh to keep from crying. I wanted to make the characters as real as possible. They do laugh. They do cry. Hopefully, this is reflective of the three-dimensional lives that these characters are based on.
How important is the role of fathers and sons in this film? It seems to be a thread throughout.
It’s extremely important. Lance, the lead character, didn’t have his father present in his life. That’s a strong reason why he joined a gang, and why he went to prison. He’s befriended by a grandmother who is raising a grandson, alone. Her husband passed away and the boy’s father died in the war, fighting in Iraq. The hero, Lance, who has no children of his own, becomes a father figure for this young man.
This tension between absentee fathers and surrogate fathers and a village raising a child is not only very strong dramatically, but it comes from my life and from Daniel’s life. I never knew my dad, so I was raised by communities within Harlem and the Bronx, as well as Church communities and the Movement community, where I joined the Black Panther Party.
I had strong male role models, but also Afeni Shakur, who was Tupac’s mom. She was there in a Miss Maddy sort of way for me. So we wanted to explore that dynamic and what is means to have a father versus not having a father.
The grandson character in the film has a creative mindset. What advice can you offer to those who want to get into the film industry?
First of all, hang on to your dream, and know that there will be challenges and stumbling blocks, as with any profession.
Learn the art of storytelling. Take screenwriting workshops. Take directing workshops. Hang on to crews with those who have more experience than you. Build your networks with people who believe in what you’re trying to do.
Make as many films as possible and don’t think that you have to wait. You shouldn’t wait. You don’t have to wait for that big studio movie. Make little films with little cameras and then make bigger films as you can. Get your portfolio of stories together.
Barry Jenkins’ first film, Medicine for Melancholy, was one he made for about $15,000, with friends from college that he went to film school with in Miami. It’s a beautiful film.
Then it took him eight years to make Moonlight, which is a tremendous film. He never gave up on his vision and his dream.
For people who have to work other jobs or do other things to make their films, and shoot on the weekends, that’s OK. You’re still an artist. We tend to attach a monetary to art, but we need to attach a creative value. You need to understand your personal wealth, in terms of telling stories that only you can tell.
Hold fast to those dreams. As Langston Hughes said, “For if dreams die, life is like a broken-winged bird that cannot fly…”
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?
I hope people love and support the film. Chapter & Verse was produced independently, and the spirit of independent cinema is that we make these stories, but without audiences supporting these stories, we won’t be able to make black independent cinema or independent films.
Chapter & Verse is available to watch in select cinemas now. For details, visit chapterandversethefilm.com.
Featured image: Daniel Beaty as Lance in Chapter & Verse © Harlem Film Company.