Thursday, February 2, 2017

Jamal Joseph/Daniel Beaty's CHAPTER & VERSE: a film James Baldwin might have loved

Perhaps it's because TrustMovies only a few days ago watched Raoul Peck's new documentary about James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, that Baldwin and his beliefs kept coming to mind during my viewing of another new film that takes in Harlem and the Black experience: CHAPTER & VERSE. All about a parolee living in a halfway house as he tries to come to terms with being a semi-free man once again, the movie places us squarely in the shoes of this decent and struggling fellow.

As played by an actor new to me, Daniel Beaty (seen above and center on the poster at top), who also co-wrote the film), both this character, S. Lance Ingram -- his father named him Sir Lancelot, so he has shortened that -- and the performance by Mr. Beaty stand out by being different from many other black characters we see on film. Lance is neither super-heroic nor super-violent, and Mr. Beaty himself looks much more "real" than many of his contemporaries. He's not toned nor buff, and his face, while attractive enough, is nothing special. Yet his quietly persuasive performance will lock you into this tale of connection and sacrifice.

Directed and co-written by Jamal Joseph, shown at right, the movie generally forsakes anything approaching florid melodrama to concentrate on enough believable and interesting specifics of our hero's daily life to offset the occasional coincidences that crop up (characters running into each other or computers breaking down a bit too conveniently).

The society that Lance is struggling to become fully a part of is not all that welcoming: The fellow in charge of his halfway house (Gary Perez) is casually racist but no ogre, and his female boss (Orange Is the New Black's Selenis Leyva, above) at the welfare kitchen where he labors daily is all too happy to coerce him into a sexual relationship. Yet these characters, too, are not shown as villains; they're simply doing their job and making things as easy/pleasurable for themselves as possible.

When one of the clients (the wonderful Loretta Devine, above, who never seems to age!) to whom Lance delivers food becomes a good friend, and he sees that her grandson (Khadim Diop, below) is moving toward street-gang life, the movie builds toward its difficult conclusion. Among the film's strengths is the fact that Joseph and Beaty do not push too hard in any direction; their film seems simply to unfold.

Nor do the filmmakers feel they must tie up all loose ends. Lance has an ex-girlfriend who left him for another while he was in prison. He sometimes watches this woman from afar, but nothing comes of this. The finale, too, while downbeat, does not overdo it. Our man has done what had to be done and now will pay for it. And the audience comes closer to and better understands a word that, for the most part, seems to have disappeared from our society: sacrifice.

Even this is leavened with hope: The phrase "I got you" has seldom resonated as it does here. (That's Omari Hardwick, left, playing Lance's friend from prison who has done well for himself on the outside.) This is small film, and I make no grand claims to anything approaching greatness. But it is real, moving and often even funny. I suspect that James Baldwin would have appreciated this movie.

Chapter & Verse, from HFC and Paladin and running 99 minutes, opens tomorrow, Friday, February 3, in New York City at the New York MIST Harlem and the following Friday, February 10, at the AMC Empire 25, and in Los Angeles at the Cinemark 18, Promenade at Howard Hughes Center; in Chicago at the AMC River East 21; and in Atlanta at the AMC 24 South Lake.

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