A Q&A with filmmaker Jamal Joseph on Chapter & Verse and the prison industrial complex

by

comment
Chapter & Verse
  • Chapter & Verse
Chapter & Verse, which finishes a run in Chicago tomorrow night, follows a former gang leader (Daniel Beaty) who, after serving eight years in prison, reenters society and struggles to adapt to his changed Harlem neighborhood. Beaty cowrote the film with director, educator, and activist Jamal Joseph, who loosely based the narrative on his own experience.

As a young man, Joseph was a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army and was prosecuted as one of the Panther 21. While incarcerated at Leavenworth penitentiary in the 1970s, he earned two college degrees, wrote five plays, produced two volumes of poetry, and founded a theater company of prisoners previously divided by race, culture, and violence.

Jamal Joseph - COURTESY OF JAMAL JOSEPH
  • Courtesy of Jamal Joseph
  • Jamal Joseph
Today, Joseph is a full professor of professional practice and former chair of Columbia University's graduate film program. Additionally, he is the executive artistic director of New Heritage Theater and Films, the founder of the Impact Repertory Youth Theater of Harlem, and a cofounding partner of the Harlem Film Company (HFC). His television writing and directing credits include Hughes' Dream Harlem (2002) and Knights of the South Bronx (2005); and he was nominated for an Academy Award in the best song category for his contributions to "Raise It Up" in the film August Rush (2007). Joseph is also the author of the biography Tupac Shakur Legacy and the memoir Panther Baby.

Last week, I spoke to Joseph about Chapter & Verse—his feature film directorial debutand the link between racism, capitalism, and America's booming prison industry.

Leah Pickett: According to the Sentencing Project, one in three black men in the United States will end up in prison. How did you feel about making a film that put a face to this statistic, and also to depicting how the system for people leaving prison is just as broken as the system that leads them in?

Jamal Joseph: Oh, absolutely. It starts with the school-to-prison pipeline, with schools that are underfunded, overcrowded, that have metal detectors, that make black and brown boys—and people of color in general—feel marginalized and like their lives don't matter.

When Daniel [Beaty], who plays the lead in the film, and I were sitting down to see what story we wanted to tell about Harlem, we were painfully aware that when we walk down the street as black men, albeit highly educated—Daniel went to Yale and I am an Ivy League professor—that every third or fourth brother that we passed either had been in prison or was headed to prison. And we realized as we were talking in my living room that the third man was in the room with us. I spent nine and a half years in prison; Daniel's father and his brother spent years in prison. We wanted to put a face on that man. And we know that for a lot of us in the black community, that's not just a statistic—that's our fathers, our brothers, our sons, our mentees, our grandchildren. And that's why we wanted to tell the story in this way, where we let you spend time, the way we spend time, with these men who have gone to prison and are coming out and trying to rebuild their lives.

To the other part of your question, we punish people because they're black and brown and poor; and then when they get out of prison, we punish them for being punished. There's a box you have to check that says, yes, I have been convicted of a crime, and yes, I've spent time in prison. So it doesn't matter if you have job skills the way that Lance in the film does; you won't even get a job interview. You won't even get the chance. It's like you're wearing a scarlet letter, the prison industrial complex scarlet letter. And one of the things we're trying to say with the film is that the ability of the human being to recapture their life and have a second chance is not only a moral obligation, but a human right.

Chapter & Verse
  • Chapter & Verse

There's a scene in the film where Lance gets in an elevator with some kids in a gang who remind him of his younger self, and he struggles to breathe. What was it like for you to leave prison and return to the community you left—to want to make an impact, but also to confront the ongoing reality of it?

I came up in a time where there was kind of formal mentorship in the community, in the form of community centers and after-school programs. And even in the Black Panther Party, there was mentoring happening between the adults and the young people, and from the women especially. Afeni Shakur, Tupac's mom, wrapped her arms around me and became my big sister—not only in the Black Panthers, but through life. There was also informal mentorship on the street corners and playgrounds—older guys who would look after you and look out for you. They'd run you off the corner before the cops did. They'd say, "You have no business in this dice game, go home and do some homework." There were eyes on kids in the community, to give them some advice and help them stay clear. There's been a breakdown of that, and I attribute that to the expansion of the prison industrial complex.

Also, the federal intelligence programs that targeted the Black Panther 
12736342.jpg
Party—in terms of infiltration, killing the leaders, and putting people in prison—began using the same tactics on gang members, on hustlers, and on any black man seen as a threat. And I want to qualify that by saying that the folks who were Panthers were former street people, people coming out of prison, people coming from the military, welfare moms, students—people who were disenfranchised, those were the ranks of the Black Panther Party. And the police and the FBI knew that had the Panthers continued, and organizations like it, all of these street corners become political; in fact, some of the gangs started being politicized by people like Fred Hampton. The Young Lords were a street gang; they became a revolutionary Puerto Rican organization. So that breakdown, I think, was conscious, because it went beyond just the political movement to disrupt our rite of passage and our sense of manhood, and our sense of passing on the political feeling that was on the streets. Back then we had the Panther office, the Nation of Islam, temples, and organizations for African-American unity. Folks on the corner were thinking black, talking black, and being revolutionary. Hustlers were wearing red, black, and green. That breakdown was conscious.

So when I came back into the community, I was dealing with this new wall of distrust with the younger men, and this new thing of them saying, "You don't have to listen to anybody, because we're dead anyway. We're in jail anyway. Just because you're a former Panther doesn't mean we have to listen to you." And so that was the wall that I had to break through.

Communities do seem more fractured now, largely because of the prison system as it is.

The prison system used to be a place that was a training camp for consciousness and revolution, as it was for Malcom X. He went in as someone who was a drug addict and a street hustler, completely focused on his own survival, and came out Malcolm X. And he had a quote that inspired me, "The penitentiary has been a university for many a black man."

When I speak to people I know who are still in prison—unfortunately still in prison, because I've been out for 29, almost 30 years—they say that structure is not in place anymore. That same kind of rebellion we see in Chapter & Verse of the younger men toward Lance—someone who should have gotten respect, someone those kids should be looking up to, how they condescend to him and don't listen to him—the same thing is happening in prisons. And it's conscious: Keep those gangs going at each other.

In many states—New York state is one of the exceptions, because they have pretty good educational programs [in prisons], and there's talk of expanding it—and in Leavenworth prison—where I earned two college degrees, and which had some great programs—those programs don't exist anymore. And that's a contradiction to every statistic that shows that the rate of recidivism and violence in prison drops in proportion to the amount of education a man or woman can get in prison. That's a no-brainer.

It's also a no-brainer that it costs more to put someone in prison for years than to send them to a historically black college or university, or to an Ivy League institution. So people are throwing their money at and making investments in prisons because they can make money. Michelle Alexander said it, Ava DuVernay said it, and we say it in Chapter & Verse. Our oppression is a business. Our oppression makes people money.

And so we have to make all of these connections when we look at what Black Lives Matter is doing, Sister Marches, people that are rebelling. We have to connect that to capitalism and to state oppression that has put folks like Trump and the other folks in the White House in power, and it's going to be business as usual. A few days after Trump was elected president, stocks for the two largest private, for-profit prisons skyrocketed [by 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively]. People are reading the tea leaves of our oppression and going, "We're lockin' up more black and brown boys; and when they're locked up, we're gonna have state labor, and we're gonna make a whole lot more money."

Chapter and Verse
  • Chapter and Verse

It seems like a big reason things haven't changed that much is that race and class remain intertwined, and that we can't talk about race without talking about capitalism, and how racial segregation and policing to protect the rich and powerful is fundamental to that system.

The race and class critique, and understanding the connection, is so important. Slavery was a business. The first slaves were white, and they weren't making enough money, and their terms of [indentured] servitude would expire after five or seven years. And so the white [colonists] began enslaving the Native American people; and they were like, are you crazy? This is my land—I kept you from starving and dying from disease when you first got here. And they fought to the death, or starved themselves to death if they were captured. And then the colonists figured out that the gold mine was African-American slaves, and learned about how to identify your property, and making them wake up under a different sun and stars than they woke up under in Africa, and everything that went along with that.

Let's be clear that it was a business. Slave labor built this country; as Michelle Obama said, literally built the White House. And many companies profited, like Lloyd's of London and many companies on Wall Street. The first fortunes that they made were from the slave trade.

The slave patrols were there to police the slaves. The philosophy of the slave patrols was that these black slaves were property, and that they should be controlled, contained, captured if they escape, and punished severely to be made an example of. Policing grew out of the slave patrols. And in many ways, there are still slave patrols in our communities, to protect the interests of the rich and of the capitalists, and not of the people. It's why a black grandmother can call 911 and say, "Somebody's on my fire escape, trying to kick in the window," and the police get there 15 to 30 minutes late, if at all. And a white person can call 911 and say, "There's a shady-looking black kid across the street," and the cops will be there before they can hang up the phone.

During the eight years under President Obama, people would say we were having a "postracial" moment. People would get upset if you talked about slavery. People were allowed to talk about the Holocaust—teach it in their schools, teach it in their temples—but if you started to talk about slavery, people would get uncomfortable. They'd point to the fact that we had a black president and say we shouldn't talk about that. And even our black president was a victim of racism, and stymied for almost everything that he tried to do. One man can't fix a broken system.

Also, there's the idea that [comes from slavery] that black people are less than human. That you can be handcuffed, beaten, or shot down in cold blood, in the back, crossing the street to your grandmother's house—as was the case with a young brother here who died five years ago, Ramarley Graham. There's that whole attitude. So when people are critiquing the police, I think it's important to connect it to institutionalized racism and to the idea of property. When you do that, you're a target—when you start talking about more than just race.

When Dr. King started talking about poverty, racism, and war in his great speech at Riverside Church, and merged race with labor—organizing black and white sanitation workers in Memphis and in Chicago—and had called the war in Vietnam "a war of capitalist exploitation," he was dead within a year. When Malcolm X started talking about race and class—saying he prayed with white and Chinese Muslims, and giving a speech at Oxford University where he talked about class struggle, saying our struggle is capitalism—he was dead within a year. The Panthers began to say, "all power to the people"; and that means class struggle, because that means people who are white, black, brown, red, and yellow can struggle against racism and capitalism as an institution. And because we wanted to bring down an institution that oppresses all poor people, we were brutally destroyed within five years.

Chapter & Verse
  • Chapter & Verse

One of the rallying cries of the anti-Trump movement is "the people united will never be divided." That seems to be what really scares the rich and powerful. Because if it's not just about race, but also about class struggle, and bringing down an entire system of oppression against poor people, that's more of a threat.

Exactly. People often try to reduce it to just that. That's why you have those knee-jerk reactions to Black Lives Matter—people saying, "white lives matter, too" or "blue lives matter"—as if we can't affirm ourselves and also build coalitions with other groups and affirm them at the same time. You don't need to get defensive about it.

People did the same thing when the Black Is Beautiful movement happened. I'm old enough to remember when being called black was an insult, but then we embraced that. We embraced our hair and our Africanness and all of that, and started to say, "black is beautiful." And people were offended by that in the beginning. So any time you affirm yourself, remember what Malcolm X once said, that the oppressor is masterful at making the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim. And I say to Black Lives Matter that that means the movement is working. If people get upset and defensive and start to call you names and try to be divisive, keep on keeping on. That it means you're organizing the way you're supposed to be organizing, and offending who you're supposed to offend.

One of the ways you have chosen to make an impact is through art, which is powerful. Words are powerful. Representation is powerful. But beyond that, what can the average person do to combat these systems of oppression in their daily lives?

We had a saying in the movement, that Afeni Shakur taught me as a young Panther, that the goal of the Black Panther Party was to not make every man, woman, and child in the black community a Panther—the goal of the Black Panther Party was to make itself obsolete. That if we showed people the possibilities outside of their struggles, and how they could fight back in their own lives, they wouldn't need the Black Panther Party—because you'd have a politically aware, revolutionary community. And that's what we would do. We had cooks in the breakfast program who came in because kids had to be fed. We had health clinics; we turned the Panther office into a place where we had free testing for sickle cell anemia, hypertension, asthma, lead poisoning—all of the diseases that are prevalent in our community—because we had doctors and nurses who came in and said they wanted to be revolutionary doctors and nurses.

We need teachers to teach, bakers to bake, doctors to heal, and mentors to mentor, with a revolutionary consciousness. People have to get into these rooms together. They have to be on the street to protest. And different segments of the community and different progressive people need to talk about how we can form a united front, so people can understand that when we're talking about issues in the black community, LGBT issues, immigration, and women's movement, we're not talking about separate struggles. We're talking about defeating a brutal, fascist monster that's oppressing all of us, and for the same reason: that all of our lives are just pennies on the dollar, according to the people who are running things.

It's really important that people understand that yes, social media is great, and protesting is great, but getting into the room with folks to talk about what you can be doing in your community—how you can be feeding kids, how you can be organizing around housing, how you can do hands-on, community-organizing work around people's needs, in addition to the protests and the political engagement—is what people really need to begin to do: seeking each other out online, and seeking out those organizations that are working in their communities. Find places where you can be in the room with folks. Learn from the examples of others, and learn from your history, and understand that the power really does belong to the people.

Learn more about Joseph at jamaljoseph.com, and view Chicago area showtimes for
Chapter & Verse here.


Add a comment