Imagine returning to your neighborhood after eight years in prison.
You want to use the new skills you learned while serving time, but no one will hire you with your record. You'd like to catch up with your best friend, but you're afraid he'll draw you into gang life again. You need to stay clean, but you can't help inhaling the pot teenagers are smoking in your proximity.
"Chapter & Verse" tells the story of S. Lane Ingram, a former gang Leader re-entering society on parole and struggling to build a new, honorable life in his old Harlem community.
"We wanted to tell a Harlem story that we know that only we could tell, about a tale of two Harlems," said film director and co-writer Jamal Joseph.
Joseph is a professor at Columbia University's graduate film program, the founder of the Harlem-based youth theater program IMPACT, and a former Black Panther Party member who spent nine years in prison. His fellow screenwriter and Harlem resident, Daniel Beaty, who plays Lance, is a graduate of Yale University and American Conservatory Theater, a social justice advocate, and the child of a home broken by drug addiction and the criminal justice system.
For Joseph and Beaty, Harlem has two faces: it's a neighborhood where, in "Chapter & Verse," real estate agents are marketing their inventory as "up-and-coming" and where gangs hold up Chinese food delivery men at knife point.
Here's what else the co-writers taught us about their film — also starring Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick and Selenis Leyva — and their neighborhood:
► The film was shot in Harlem within a 10-block radius, not far from Joseph and Beaty's own apartments.
Many scenes take place around and inside the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Towers, a housing project "with eight different gangs and some of the highest arrest rates in New York City," according to Joseph. But "Chapter and Verse" also trains its lens on nearby luxury buildings, where apartments go for $1 million or more.
The filmmakers' intent was to tell a "tale of two Harlems," Joseph said — "not just the gentrified Harlem with all the cool restaurants, the way some of our new neighbors see it, and not just gangs around the corner and lack of hope and opportunity, and buildings that we never live in and police we have to duck around the corner from whether we’re doing something wrong or not."
Joseph lives near the 116th Street subway stop on the 6 line, and Beaty said he can see the Apollo Theater from the window of his apartment.
► Harlem has changed a lot since Joseph returned from Leavenworth Penitentiary in the mid-1980s.
"When I came out of prison, Harlem was in the midst of a crack epidemic, and you would hear gunshots almost nightly," the filmmaker recalled. Friends visiting from out of town sometimes compared the neighborhood's rows of crumbling buildings to the bombed-out streets of London after World War II.
"To see that change in the last 20 years, but to know that Harlem was being re-built for rich, not poor has been heartbreaking," Joseph said. Alumni of his Harlem-based youth theater company tell him they'd like to return to the neighborhood after graduating college, but the can't afford it.
► One in three men in Harlem and communities like it will end up in prison, studies have found.
Within his immediate family, Joseph was the third man to be incarcerated, in case for his involvement with the Black Panther Party. Both Beaty's father and his older brother have been in and out of the Ohio prison system for drug abuse.
“A whole segment of our society has been cut off at the knees by the impact of incarceration," said Beaty, who described the country's prison system as a "tool of systematic oppression."
"A lot of times there are other issues at play [in crime] — there is addiction, mental illness, there is a lack of access to jobs and resources to support oneself." The system never addresses those underlying issues, Beaty said.
While Joseph knows the one-in-three statistic to be true from personal experience, he said, "we also know the humanity and struggles of these men to be true, of wanting to live better lives, wanting to have families, and work, and overcome those obstacles that led to incarceration in the first place."
► In the summertime, you'll see Harlem residents working out on street corners.
In one "Chapter and Verse" scene, Lance's friend Jomo introduces him to a group of men who train and compete in body-weight exercises at a local playground to train their bodies and minds.
”I wanted to show something that people who live in Harlem know, but that people outside didn’t see," Joseph said of the film's workout team, modeled on the Bartendaz NYC. (You may remember them from the New York Times' profile of an 11-year-old homeless girl named Dasani Coates.)
The fitness guru who organizes Bartendaz events around Harlem, Hassan Yasin-Bradley, was once incarcerated himself. In preparation for his prison-conditioned character's feats of strength, Beaty said he did some training with Yasin-Bradley's crew. Bartendaz members also make an appearance in the film.
► The film crew partnered with local businesses for its catering needs and shooting locations.
In return, the film's cast and crew invited community members to watch the filming in process, he added.
Watch a trailer for the film below: