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Jamal Joseph

From Black Panther and Convict to Professor, Oscar Nominee, and Youth Advocate

Eddie Joseph was a fifteen-year-old Bronx honor student when he joined the Black Panthers in 1968. At sixteen, by then called Jamal, he was in prison with the legendary Panther 21 and would later serve more years at Leavenworth, where he earned two college degrees and found a new calling in prison theater. Now a film professor at Columbia University and former chair of their Graduate Film Program, as well as a recent Oscar nominee, he tells the remarkable story of his transformation in Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention. He is the executive artistic director of the New Heritage Theater in Harlem and cofounder and executive artistic director of IMPACT Repertory Theater, which has mentored over one thousand Harlem teens, providing an artistic voice for their lives and a constructive channel for social activism. For this he has just been awarded the Actors’ Equity Association 2017 Paul Robeson Citation Award, for exemplifying the humanitarian principles heralded by Robeson.

Jamal is the co-writer and director of the just-released feature film, Chapter & Verse, which is a New York Times Critic’s Pick and about which the Los Angeles Times wrote, “James Baldwin’s bracingly relevant writings….resonate deeply in…Jamal Joseph’s tough/tender portrait of an ex-con attempting to find redemption in modern-day transitional Harlem.” Click here for the link. He is also featured in Stanley Nelson's award winning PBS documentary "Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution ” Here’s a clip. Joseph has the right to screen these in conjunction with his appearances. and venues have been showing one or both prior to his appearance. The book and films create a unique opportunity for discussion with an inspiring author.

When Joseph went to his first Panther meeting, bursting with militant enthusiasm and expecting to be issued a gun, the leader handed him a stack of books: Mao, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver. “I thought you were going to arm me,” said Jamal. “I just did,” said the leader. After his first term in prison, he became one of the youngest spokespeople and leaders of the Panthers’ New York Chapter. He joined the revolutionary underground, became an FBI fugitive, and landed in prison again at Leavenworth, this time for harboring a fugitive. There Joseph not only earned his degrees and wrote several plays, but he also started a theater group that united prisoners previously segregated along racial lines. “I began to see the power of art to bring people together to tell their stories, and to heal the human spirit,” he says.

In the 1990s, Joseph began teaching at Columbia—the very school he urged students to burn down during one of his most famous speeches as a Panther. He has written and directed for television and was nominated for a 2008 Oscar for his contribution to the song “Raise It Up” in the film August Rush. He has been featured in the New York Times, ABC’s Nightline, Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, BET’s American Gangster, ESPN’s One Night in Vegas, and VH1’s Lord of the Revolution and was named one of the top twelve African American educators in New York by the New York Daily News.

Joseph’s many awards have included a Cine Golden Eagle, a Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame award, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and an NAACP leadership award. He is the author of the interactive biography Tupac Shakur Legacy and has lectured and performed around the country in venues ranging from Fisk and Harvard universities to Lincoln Center and the Apollo Theater. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children, who are all studying at Ivy League schools. Summing up the lessons he has learned on his twisted path to manhood and community leadership, he says, “I made mistakes along the way, but I remained true to my vision. The amazing thing about American society is that, through the arts and education, people get the chance to reinvent themselves.”

Speaking Topics

  • Panther Baby: A Life of Rebellion and Reinvention
  • Raising It Up: The Power of Art and Education in Young People's Lives
  • Film as Art & Activism
  • Filming From the Heart: Finding the Truth of Character and Story


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