The Book of Clarence Review | The Strength of Street Knowledge

by Andrew Parker

An inspired and hilarious, if somewhat narratively uneven take on the traditional biblical epic, writer-director Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence once again finds the filmmaker taking a bunch of filmmaking styles – new school and old – throwing them into a genre mash-up blender, and having a lot of fun subverting conventions. While not as tightly packaged and viscerally entertaining as his previous feature – the bracing, brash Neo-western The Harder They FallThe Book of Clarence shows new sides to Samuel’s bag of stylistic tricks, and he still has a stacked cast of performers that bring their full energy and attention to his sandbox. It’s far from a perfect exercise, but The Book of Clarence is more interesting and thoughtful than any number of so called “perfect” movies could ever hope to be.

The year is 33 A.D., not too long before the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and smooth talking hustler, “herb purveyor,” and non-believer Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is struggling to see what the big deal is. Clarence, who spends most of his days running petty schemes with his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) and caring for his aging mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), doesn’t believe in miracles like his apostle twin brother, Thomas (also Stanfield), but he sure could use one. Clarence has thirty days to pay back a large sum of money to the feared Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), the brother of his longtime crush (Anna Diop). After getting rejected by Thomas in a bid to have Jesus’ posse protect him, Clarence decides to pose as a different sort of messiah in a bid to fleece the masses and save his own skin. It works for a time, but the more attention that Jesus garners from the powerful Roman Empire, the worse things get for Clarence, who’ll learn a lot about what it means to be the face of a major spiritual movement the hard way.

The Book of Clarence outright courts being described as blasphemous by anyone unwilling to parse the overall meaning of the story, but like many other misjudged and boundary pushing biblical tales (from The Last Temptation of Christ to Dogma and beyond), Samuel’s work here is nonjudgmental and clearly based in some understanding of how faith works. Just because a movie is centred around a duplicitous stoner who’s motivated by selfish desires doesn’t mean there’s no chance for a resounding, redemptive arc or powerful messages about the nature of forgiveness and the human ability to learn and grow from one’s mistakes in astounding ways. For a film that only places a moderate amount of belief in the nature of miracles and the power of organized religion, The Book of Clarence understands why the historical stories surrounding its own high concept plot endure across centuries. It’s not a film about discovering faith in strict terms, but instead about something a lot more powerful: finding a sense of morality.

While The Book of Clarence is ostensibly a comedy at heart – and quite a funny one at that – Samuel shows the same degree of respect to the classic biblical epics of yore that he paid to old school westerns in his previous film. An exciting opening chariot race where Clarence and Elijah face off against a speeding Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) nicely sets the visual and narrative tone for everything to follow. The sets, setting, costume design, practical effects, and lush musical score are opulent throwbacks to the kinds of movies no one is making these days. It’s vibrant, but familiar, and Samuel’s infusion of hip-hop culture and post-modern visual panache add a further layer of swagger befitting of its titular character.

There are some moments in the early and later stages of The Book of Clarence where ambition tends to get the better of Samuel. There are hints throughout that this is a project that has been cut down to a more manageable size, and was probably once just as lengthy and sprawling in scope as the epics Samuel wants to ape. The setting of the stage off the top is noticeably choppy in terms of storytelling, with Samuel both taking a lot of time to get around to the main plot, and simultaneously coming across like it hasn’t been explained enough. And when the story shifts from being lighthearted to deadly serious in the final act, that transition isn’t a smooth one.

In spite of the awkward tonal shifts, The Book of Clarence still works because it has almost too much going for it for this thing to fail. Samuel looks at modern ills (religious hypocrisy, racial profiling, the key differences between knowledge and belief) through an historical and classical literary context to great effect, and his visual staging of the script is always on point. The core sibling rivalry that Stanfield has to play out with himself on screen is lovingly performed and carefully nuanced without seeming gimmicky. The action and comedy sequences are delivered with a maximum amount of gusto and technical brilliance. 

And there isn’t a bad or marginal role to be found in Samuel’s material, which is probably why the director was able to round out his cast with an almost embarrassing amount of riches. In addition to the always reliable Stanfield and perpetually underrated Cyler, The Book of Clarence offers wonderful parts for the likes of David Oyelowo (as John the Baptist), Nicholas Pinnock (as the big JC), Micheal Ward (as Judas), Omar Sy (as the practically indestructible former gladiator Barabbas, who might get the funniest line reading in the entire film), Alfre Woodard (as Mother Mary), and James McAvoy (as Pontius Pilate). Some of these roles are bigger and more pivotal than others, but Samuel makes sure there’s no such thing as a small or insignificant part.

Mileage will vary from viewer to viewer, as is the case with every film trying to get cheeky with The Bible, but there’s no denying that Samuel is onto something with The Book of Clarence. It’s not the most profound story of coming to faith, but a lot of thought and care has been put into The Book of Clarence every step of the way. There’s a power to Samuel’s film that finds it slotting nicely between being an outright satire and an earnest tribute. It showcases a major filmmaking talent carving their own path by reinventing the kinds of movies that influenced them, but through an unapologetically modern day black lens. It bites off more than it can chew at times, but the craft, intent, performances, and overall vision of The Book of Clarence are praiseworthy and undeniable.

The Book of Clarence opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, January 12, 2024.

Join our list

Subscribe to our mailing list and get weekly updates on our latest contests, interviews, and reviews.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

You may also like

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Accept Read More