by Charles Kirkland, Jr.
An untold epistle of the Bible comes to light in Jeymes Samuels’ latest film, The Book of Clarence.
Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), the younger twin brother of Thomas, the apostle of Jesus, has found himself in a little trouble as he owes money to the local loan shark who happens to be the brother of the woman that he loves. After being reminded of his debt, Clarence, a devout atheist, comes up with a scheme to obtain the money, and become a new Messiah. As he comes across success from faking as a holy man, Clarence soon discovers that he is drawing ire from his brother, the apostles, the loan shark, and ultimately the Roman Empire. The last thing you want to do is to have the Roman government hear that you claim to be the Messiah.
The Book of Clarence is a comedy written and directed by Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall). The film features a cornucopia of stars including Stanfield, David Oyelowo, Omar Sy, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Anna Diop, Caleb McLaughlin, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, RJ Cyler, Nicholas Pinnock, Chase Dillon, James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The Book of Clarence is Samuels’ first film outside of the Western genre although he borrows some of the creative shots and several cast members from previous films. The film is also Samuels’ first comedy film and it is a comedy for about seventy-five percent of the film.
Of course, the film centers around Clarence played by LaKeith Stanfield. Stanfield has this uncanny ability to be completely hilarious while being completely straight-faced. Whether it is a sly word, an intonation, or even a side-eye, Stanfield’s comedic timing is magnificent. Samuels is blessed though because whatever comic scraps there are to be had are quickly snapped by the also phenomenally humorous RJ Cyler. Cyler, as a sidekick, has the gift of freedom to be as silly and off-the-wall as is needed. He is the perfect complement to Stanfield.
There are a couple of surprising things about this film that may stir a bit of controversy. The first is that all of the Jewish characters in the film are played by Black actors. Nowhere in the film are the characters referred to as being Jews or Jewish but we are talking about Jesus, the apostles, Mary Magdalene, Joseph, and Mary among others here. There is precedence for this. Back in 1936, The Green Pastures was a race film that recounted stories from the Old and New Testaments played by Black actors. This was high controversy back then for Warner Bros when they released the film yet, in this day and age, surely this polemic should have been dispelled. With the recent Zionist remarks by some prominent celebrities, the portrayal of Jewish characters exclusively by Black actors may be a tad unsettling. Hopefully, the intentions of the writer/director will not be misconstrued as Samuels is replacing Jewish characters with Black characters to communicate a message about slavery and oppression.
The second surprising thing about the film is that there is a startling and uncomfortable scene of crucifixion in the movie. During the third act of the film, when the tone shifts from being a comedy, there is a scene where a character is beaten while walking up a hill with a cross and then hung from it. While this scene is nowhere near the ugly brutality that was seen in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it is particularly violent in its depiction both auditory and visually, and can be a bit unnerving for the squeamish. The scene serves as the high water point in the transition of the movie from hilarious social comedy to a dire evangelistic effort.
The third surprise has to be the faithful Christian theme and message that is conveyed by the film. Not since Leap of Faith has there been this good a story about a charlatan’s journey. Samuels has several opportunities to blaspheme in the movie and thankfully does not. He comes close when Clarence preaches his Socratic gospel that “Knowledge is better than belief.” Samuels reaches the Sartwellian conclusion that true knowledge is true belief. Normally, a critical complaint would be that The Book of Clarence loses direction by changing streams the way this movie does, but ultimately, it is fun to see the atheists squirm with discomfort with the message of faith that this film delivers.
Rated PG-13 for strong violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material, and smoking, The Book of Clarence is a surprisingly funny combination of History of the World Part I and The Passion of the Christ with a little bit of Ben-Hur thrown in for fun. Despite all of its themes, it is a hip, credible gospel story of redemption and true faith that would go over well with most church youth groups.
The Book of Clarence is in theaters on January 12.