Daniel Beaty and Omari Hardwick in Chapter & Verse (Paladin/Harlem Film Company)

Can anyone really start over and have a successful second chance at life, and can a second chance give you anything more than second-hand happiness? In this smart, polished indie film from executive producer Antoine Fuqua, first-time writer/director Jamal Joseph and star/co-writer Daniel Beaty explore these questions and more. With its setting of present-day Harlem playing a co-starring role, it highlights how complex and elusive the American ideal of redemption is in actual practice.

Beaty plays S. Lance Ingram, an ex-con who ran the streets with singular fearsomeness before serving eight years of a 12-year term. (Exactly what the “S” stands for is a great story in and of itself, which shouldn’t be spoiled.) Lance isn’t proud of his criminal past per se, but he seems to value the respect it garnered him—he’s so confident that his toughness is legendary that he can boast, “Check these streets, find out who I am.”

Yet for all of his brawny brutality, Lance is soft-spoken, sensitive, and intelligent—he will patiently fix any malfunctioning computer you put in front of him; he resembles Luke Cage’s nerdier little brother. But he is also a forbidding and powerful man who can, if he wants, put anyone in varying states of unconsciousness, whether temporary or permanent. It seems as if he doesn’t fully know which side of him will win out when he is put to the test, and as viewers we never know which way the film is going to go—light or dark.

Staying at a halfway house for ex-cons, Lance is on a tight leash, undergoing regular drug tests and always being threatened with returning to jail if he fails to land a job quickly enough. Dutifully wearing an ill-fitting shirt and tie and taking long subway trips, Lance shuffles from one job interview to the next, always meeting with frustrating results. While incarcerated, Lance earned two computer certificates, and he has a real knack for fixing malfunctioning computers, but his criminal record and lack of experience make him unemployable. Lance is forced to realize that in this economy, on-the-job training is a concept that belongs to a bygone age.

Lance swallows his pride and takes a job delivering food from a pantry to the elderly and infirm. On one of his first deliveries, he encounters Miss Maddy (Loretta Devine), a spirited and fiery, yet fragile and lonely, widow who lives with her troubled teen grandson, Ty (Khadim Diop). Devine is a veteran character actress who has always been good, but she has seldom been given this much to do in a role, and she takes full advantage of the opportunity. She puts Lance to work as the man of the house, which he takes to quite naturally, appreciating that she is so able to see the good in him—perhaps more than he sees it in himself.

As Lance steadies himself and gains contacts in the world, first with Miss Maddy and then with his (overly) friendly manager, Yolanda (Selenis Leyva), it begins to appear like he can make a solid life for himself going forward. He even makes steps toward opening a computer repair business in the back of his new friend Jomo’s (Omari Hardwick) barbershop. But through it all, a sense of dread looms and builds as Miss Maddy’s grandson tries to extricate himself from the same gang that Lance was a core member of many years before.

With keenly observed details about the city and life in general (Lance’s training Miss Maddy on how to use a computer is spot-on), and more levity than one would expect (Leyva brings her comedic chops from Orange Is the New Black), Chapter & Verse has a lot to recommend it. On top of it all, there’s a timely but organic bit about a Black Lives Matter protest evolving in Lance’s neighborhood, which he proudly joins. A clear-eyed, unsentimental, yet hopeful story of redemption in today’s America, Chapter & Verse is an excellent depiction of life in New York City today.

Directed by Jamal Joseph
Written by Joseph & Daniel Beaty
Released by Paladin
USA. 97 min. Not rated
With Beaty, Loretta Devine, Omari Hardwick, Selenis Leyva, Marc John Jefferies, and Khadim Diop