THE BOOK OF CLARENCE Review: New-School Biblical Epic Undermined By Tonal Imbalance

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
THE BOOK OF CLARENCE Review: New-School Biblical Epic Undermined By Tonal Imbalance

Old-school Biblical epics have long been relics of the past, particularly a conservative, homogenous (i.e., white), Christian-oriented culture, reflecting values, attitudes, and an ideology considered universal more than half a century ago.

For writer-director-musician Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall), everything old is new again, specifically old-school Biblical epics recast — literally and figuratively — for more modern, ethnically and culturally diverse times like our own. Samuel decided to express his unabashed love for Hollywood Biblical epics through a modern, Black-oriented lens. Bold, provocative, and confounding in equal measure, the result, The Book of Clarence, will be frustrating on one end and divisive on the other.

Working from a tried-and-true template, Samuel structures The Book of Clarence around the eventful days of the little-known, completely fabricated Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield). A weed-selling striver and sometime hustler, Clarence dreams of becoming “somebody,” somebody others will respect, admire, and even worship.

Unfortunately for Clarence, coming-of-age in ancient Jerusalem, circa 33 C.E., means he’s far less likely to leave a mark in history than a footnote in history books as a tangential figure or one of the many self-styled messiah figures who populated the Holy Land around the same time that a then little-known itinerant preacher, Jesus of Nazareth (Neil Pinnock), led a religious movement that would evolve into a world religion.

Initially, though, Clarence has other, more pressing issues on his mind, like how to repay a rather large, time-sensitive debt to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), the local gang lord. Clarence generated said debt via an ill-time bet placed in a winner-take-all chariot race against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) that opens The Book of Clarence.

Nodding vigorously in the general direction of Ben-Hur, the chariot race between Clarence and Mary Magdalene proves to be a show-stopper of sorts. Shot on actual location in Italy, the race delivers more than a handful of thrills, some humor, and ultimately, defeat for Clarence and his right-hand man/best friend/perpetual stoner, Elijah (RJ Cyler). The race ends with Clarence and Elijah arse-up and pockets empty.  

With nowhere left to turn and his dream of impressing his long-time crush, Varina (Anna Diop), all but extinguished, Clarence moves onto his next ill-thought-out scheme, joining Jesus and his merry band of followers, the Twelve Apostles. Clarence’s smug twin brother, Thomas (also Stanfield), blocks Clarence’s attempt at joining Jerusalem’s coolest in-group, dismissing Clarence rightly as a non-believer and an opportunist.

To prove himself to the skeptical apostles, Clarence must free nearby gladiator-slaves. He only partially succeeds, freeing just one slave, Barabbas (Omar Sy), who, almost immediately, becomes Clarence’s left-hand man and stone-faced enforcer.

One freed slave, though, isn’t enough to win favor with the apostles, leaving Clarence right where he started, facing extinction at the hands of Jedediah the Terrible. Always a dreamer, though rarely an imaginative one, Clarence hits on his next great idea: If declaring himself the Messiah worked so well for a certain Jesus of Nazareth, it could work just as well for Clarence.

Before then, of course, Clarence has to not only develop a sales pitch he can call his own, but he also has to find out — not to mention perform — a few miracles of his own before he can gather a flock of believers and with them, a steady stream of donations to his righteous cause (i.e., his pockets).

The Book of Clarence starts as a broad, Pythonesque farce before gradually, often in fits and starts, revealing Samuel’s true intentions: An earnest, irony-free apologia for Christianity, albeit Christianity through an occasionally irreverent, Black lens. Clarence doesn’t doubt. He “knows” God doesn’t exist, embracing an anachronistic version of atheism. His sermons, some on mounts, some not, center on knowing versus believing, but before long, whether through the evolution of his values away from self-centeredness and selfishness toward altruism and compassion, his encounters with the real Jesus, or both, he becomes a Christ-like figure.

Regardless of Samuel’s intentions, even suggesting a made-up character like Clarence is Christ-like, though decidedly not Christ, might be a spiritual bridge too far for moviegoers who consider themselves Christians of one denomination or another. In Samuel’s defense, he does draw on Biblical history as much as the New Testament: The Roman-controlled Holy Land overflowed with self-styled messiahs, some promising an end to Roman rule, others promising a heaven where pain and anguish would end and justice prevail. Whether Jesus himself lived remains in dispute, though it’s likely he did, but the ideas credited to him came from various sources, added to each new iteration within the Gospels.

Clarence could easily fit into the “a messiah, but not the Messiah” category. There’s a sense, though, that Samuels wants us to consider Clarence as somehow touched by the New Testament God and later, by Jesus himself, turning him into the role of the Thirteenth Apostle he initially wanted to be for purely self-interested reasons.

Coming as it does, though, after multiple scenes filled with all manner of bawdy humor, physical slapstick, and musical interludes, the constant tonal whiplash will be more than the average — and possibly above-average — moviegoer can stand.

The Book of Clarence opens Friday, January 12, only in movie theaters, via TriStar Pictures.

The Book of Clarence

  • Jeymes Samuel
  • Jeymes Samuel
  • Teyana Taylor
  • Benedict Cumberbatch
  • James McAvoy
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Anna DiopDavid OyelowoJames McAvoyJeymes SamuelLaKeith StanfieldMarianne Jean-BaptisteNeil PinnockOmar SyTeyana TaylorThe Book of ClarenceBenedict CumberbatchAdventureComedyDrama

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