Literary Lion: 5 Questions with Writer and Director Jamal Joseph

March 31, 2015

Film Professor Jamal Joseph has written and directed for Black Starz, HBO, Fox TV, New Line Cinema, Warner Bros. and A&E. His produced screenplays include Ali: An American Hero, New York Undercover, Knights of the South Bronx and The Many Trials of Tammy B. He is currently co-executive producing and writing a dramatic musical for BET, and adapting his memoir, Panther Baby, about his teenage years in the Black Panthers, into a feature screenplay, which he will direct. Joseph is the founder and artistic director of IMPACT, a Harlem-based youth theatre company.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

Teaching has been enormously helpful to my writing. As I teach I learn both by hearing my thoughts about writing "out loud” and by absorbing the curiosity and enthusiasm of my students. My real life experiences as a screenwriter and author allow me to share "front line" stories about what I face as a writer professionally and creatively. I also teach writing to young people in my Harlem Youth theatre program, IMPACT. The joy and pain of their lives and world view let me know how powerful writing can be and is as a tool for empowerment and social change.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

Reading is vitally important to writers. Screenwriting students need to be well read as well as "well viewed' (i.e. films). I often talk to my students about the power of narration as found in great books, and the poetry of screenwriting as found in the verses of great poets.

Q. Do you focus on one particular kind of writing or can you easily switch genres?

I have written two nonfiction books (Tupac Shakur Legacy and Panther Baby), five plays, been published in magazines and anthologies as a poet, and I am a song lyricist. I enjoy working in various genres. I am first and foremost a story teller. When an idea grabs me, my first thought is, "what is the best way (genre) to try and tell this story?"

Q. How does living and working in New York influence your writing?

New York in general and Harlem in particular fill me with the energy, passions and source material to write like no other places I've been. There are great characters and stories wherever you go. All I write has to do with what New York is—feel with your eyes and listen with your heart. I'm pretty good at putting on some music, taking a deep breath - and shutting the New York life symphony out so I can write.

Q. What are you working on now?

I am working with director Antoine Fuqua on the screenplay adaption of The New Times best seller The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. I am also editing an independent feature film that I co-wrote and directed entitled Chapter and Verse, about a reformed gang leader returning to Harlem after eight years in prison. The story is contemporary but partially reflective of my own homecoming as a Black Panther returning to Harlem and the crack epidemic after spending nine years in prison.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg