We caught up actor Daniel Beaty to talk about his role as co-writer and lead actor in Jamal Joseph’s new film Chapter & Verse.
So I am aware that you and Jamal Joseph both worked on the script. Would you be able to tell me the process of writing the script? And describe some of the give and take that came with getting the film the way you guys wanted.
Absolutely, Jamal’s been a long time friend and collaborator and we both wanted to make a movie. We said, “Figure out what is the story we want to tell.” We knew that we wanted it to be a really layered film that shows the beauty and celebrated the power of who we are, especially in an urban environment. We started watching film that we thought has the qualities of the type of movie we wanted to make. We literally sat in my apartment, then in his apartment, and back and forth. We brainstormed, and at one point we had postcards out all over the floor of my apartment. We started figuring out who this character wanted to be.
One particular image that helped us figure out the story we wanted to tell, is someone who is extremely important in my life, Ruby Dee, the late Ruby Dee. She was ill at that point, was about to make her transition. I had a dream of hugging her and holding her because she got very fragile as she got older. That was the image that ultimately led to a scene in the film when as Miss Maddy gets ill, Lance actually holds her. We started to ask ourselves what would be the journey of this film and the journey of this character that this man would get to that level of love and intimacy with this woman, older woman who becomes like a mother figure to him. What would be the journey of that? We literally wrote from the theme, ‘How do broken people love each other?” That’s sort of the quality and the constant energy of the film.
And you said Ruby Dee?
Yes, the legendary Ruby Dee. She first saw me in a play in New York back in two thousand five. I owe much of my career to her because she started writing letters … And she would literally travel around the country and introduce me before my performance so that they could put on the poster, “Ruby Dee’s gonna be there.” People who didn’t know who I was would show up because they want to see Ruby Dee, and then they get to learn about me. She’s truly one of my angels.
Often in cinema you see writers and directors in some way, shape or form insert themselves into a story. How much of your own personal experiences found its way into Chapter and Verse? Be it literal, or more of just a figurative, or you try to disguise it in a way.
Right, that’s a great question. I always say that my work is emotionally autobiographical. I celebrate that because I think it’s useful to write what you know, and that doesn’t have to be literally experienced with things. I know what it means to be afraid, I know what it means to feel isolated at times. I know it feels to have a glimmer of hope and ask yourself for the strength to hope more. I know what it was to need love and to celebrate that love once you get it. These are all things that Lance goes through, so when I write I always try to write from what I know so that the character feels real, and has dimension, verses feeling stereotypical or flat.
What was your approach to portraying Lance? Was there anything you did specifically that put yourself in the space when you were on set? What was that like?
Well Lance being a black man who is just getting out of prison after eight years its something that I can connect to on a personal level. My own father has been in and out of prison sixty times, six–zero, over the course of my life since I was three years old and my older brother in and out of prison as well. When I thought about the character I really wanted to focus on the humanity of this man, and as a real human being who has experienced some things in prison. Who’s trying to find his light again now that he’s out and back in the world. When I would start the day I would just try to reconnect to that feeling of reentering a very changed world, and the newness of the world; from fear that’s there, from desire that’s there, and ultimately the hope that he finds when he connects to people in his community
I was watching the film and there’s a cameo with Al Thompson. I know he’s doing a lot of stuff with his web series that is based out of Harlem. My question for you is, in the medium of film and television how important is not just the representation of African-Americans, but also the representation of that community as a whole?
You know I love that, and actually I can’t officially announce it yet I’m also closing a deal on a T.V. show I’m creating that’s based in Harlem. What I will say is this, that in these urgent times when racial conflict is at an all time high, stories that truly show humanity of all of us, particularly of color are one the most powerful revolutionary acts we can take.
My philosophy is if they can truly see us, and by see us I mean feel us, get that we have hopes, dreams, desires, love each other, love our communities as much as they do, love theirs … If they can truly see us, they’ll be less likely to kill us, or try to kill us. That may sound a little dramatic, but when we look at what’s happening with police brutality, when we look at the things the president is trying to do, it visibly is that urgent. Story is at the heart of everything and we have to tell stories that honor, celebrate, and show the humanity of us as a people and of our communities.
The film has an uplifting tone as a whole, but it doesn’t seem aimed just at the youth like myself but anybody who’s trying to put themself in a better situation. What do you guys want people to walk away from this film with?
I think there’s a few different messages but … It’s a couple of things. One is that our capacity to love each other is our greatest hope to overcome the myriad of challenges we face. So Lance, even in his brokenness, becomes a mentor to Ty. I think that’s … Sometimes it feels overwhelming, it’s like all these problems out here, like what do we do? How do we even start? I think what we want people to take away is: start by loving, investing, and seeing the people next to us, the people in our community, the people in our family, the young people that are around us.
Lance actually finds this power when he starts to be of service, and when he realizes he has something to give. Rather than focusing on his deficits, he starts focusing on what he can give. He can help Miss Maddy fix things around the house; he can intervene with Ty; he can start fixing these computers for people. I think that’s the message. This is a real close up on who we are as a people and it’s a close up that talks about the little things we can do to hope and to invest in each other.
There are many differences between the film’s male characters. What do you feel is difficult about being a man in today’s society? Not just being a young man but an adult male also.
I think that particularly being a black male … I think it’s a false narrative about who we are that perpetuates society. Whether that is being an adult, black male trying to live your life and love your family, make your contribution to your work, believing yourself despite all these forces that are lying about who we are or systematically trying to destroy who we are. Or whether you’re a young black male or black child who is trying to believe in yourself despite these false narratives. I think that’s hard.
I think the other thing that’s hard is … Sometimes these concepts of hyper masculinity that don’t allow us to be fully thinking, feeling human beings. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how much swag you have, how much masculinity you may have. You still are afraid sometimes. You still feel vulnerable and confused sometimes. It’s natural. And creating space in the narrative of who we are as men for that to be okay as well. And that’s a lot of what you see in Lance. You see all that in his eyes. You see the vulnerability in the midst of him being … How he comes across … Out of prison a black man at a certain size … You can see in his eyes, he’s actually quite vulnerable.
In regards to Chapter & Verse do you mind just telling me what’s up next for you guys?
Yeah, absolutely. We release in New York on the third, and then Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles on the tenth of February and hope that people find the film and love it and that we get to continue to open in more cities and really get the story out to people. I mentioned the model on Moonlight, which is a very encouraging model because when it first started … The smaller film that a lot of people didn’t know about, and then because it really spoke to people it’s taken off like wildfire.
And then you specifically, what’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I have a few exciting projects. One, I’m working with the Mandela family on a Broadway musical based on his life. That I’m really excited about. And I just closed the deal we’ll be announcing in a couple of weeks, with a cable network for a television show based on my life with two A-list celebrities that are executive producing. As much as I can say now. So that’s going to be a real priority focus. Super, super excited about that. And it’s also based in Harlem. I’m excited to be able tell more of that story. And it’s focused on young people in Harlem.
CHAPTER & VERSE opens in NY on February 3 and additional cities on February 10.