Overview: A recently paroled ex-gang member struggles to re-acclimate himself into society after serving eight years in prison. Paladin; 2015; Not Rated; 97 minutes.
Tough Crowd, Tough Crowd…: One of the film critics I find myself returning to over and over again for inspiration is the curmudgeonly James Agee. Before he established himself as one of America’s greatest novelists with his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Death in the Family (1957), he made waves as a film critic working for numerous publications, most notably for Time and The Nation. One of the harshest film critics to ever wield a pen, the man was incapable of saying one good thing about a movie without qualifying it with at least two bad. One of my favorite reviews he ever did was his August 1944 write-up of MGM’s Dragon Seed (1944), a war drama based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel of the same name. He spends the first half of the review lavishing the film with some of his most hyperbolic praises. For a moment the reader thinks that they’ve finally found a movie that Agee—the man who turned up his nose at the likes of Orson Welles—unequivocally likes. Then Agee hits us with this line: “Such matters aside, however, Dragon Seed is an almost unimaginably bad movie.” Wait, what?
Editors Go To School For a Reason, Y’know: Though I admit tough standards, I imagine myself somewhat more merciful than Mr. Agee. But one thing that he taught me was that it was possible to enjoy and hate a movie at the same time. Certainly I felt that way about Jamal Joseph’s Chapter & Verse (2015). Make no mistake: it’s a very flawed film. I don’t just mean that it fails as a piece of storytelling; it fails some very basic tenets of cinematic craftsmanship. Many scenes feel cut together of multiple takes of actors performing the same lines with different emotions. Though the acting throughout the film is quite good, Joseph allowed one too many jarring and wooden line readings, almost as if he accidentally edited the occasional rehearsal take into the final cut. There’s even a scene near the end of two men talking in which one of the lines is obviously (and poorly) redubbed in post to sound like it had been yelled down a hallway.
Inexplicable Brilliance: And yet, I find myself loving Chapter & Verse, despite its featuring a somewhat recycled plot. After serving eight years of a twelve year sentence, reformed gang leader S. Lance Ingram (Daniel Beaty) struggles to re-adapt to the Harlem streets of his youth. Although he is a trained computer expert, he’s forced to take mind-numbing blue-collar jobs washing dishes and delivering charity meals to invalids on foot. These early scenes are some of the best as we watch Lance walk through his old hood with the gently confused detachment of the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987). Here’s the playground where he used to gangbang with his crew. Here are the streetlights he used to do pull-ups on. And here are the old, rundown buildings he used to pass day after day, now being eyed by developers for gentrification. It’s almost a shame when the plot starts back up.
But start up it does. He strikes up a friendship with one of the invalids on his route, an irascible, impetuous, yet overwhelmingly loving older woman named Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine). Gradually he starts spending more time with her, building her a computer from scratch, meeting her friends and family, listening to stories about her dead ex-husband. She introduces him to her grandson Ty (Khadim Diop), a wannabe gang member with an attitude problem. Of course Lance doesn’t want Ty going down That Path In Life, so he becomes a surrogate father. But it soon becomes apparent that if Lance wants to save Ty from going down the same path he did, he’ll have to take a more hands-on approach with the gang. If you’ve seen Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), you probably have a good idea of where the film eventually goes.
Overall: The saving grace of Chapter & Verse is its painfully honest eye and ear for human behavior and speech. Though the film ends up succumbing to clichés, the characters are so lifelike and endearing in their verisimilitude that we hardly care. Just to share time with these human beings is reward enough. Even the more garish subplots—one involving Lance being sexually harassed by one of his bosses, another surrounding Lance’s odd obsession with a particular homeless man—can be viewed with indulgence.
Featured Image: Paladin