The Book of Clarence is a movie that can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be.
The story of a young black man in the time of Christ, it initially comes across as an old-time Bible epic. But then, most of the non-Roman characters (including Jesus and his followers) are black; so naturally it addresses issues of race and slavery as well.
On top of that, the titular figure and his friends are pot-smokers; so we likewise get an encomium on the use of narcotics. (No, I am not kidding here; these burnouts even have makeshift wooden “lighters”!)
There’s gladiator action; young romance; a rogue’s journey to enlightenment; a gangland subplot; family drama; hints of mythology; and meditations on faith vs. certainty.
Plus, the whole thing rides on a generous and joyful soundtrack of contemporary jazz, hip-hop and R&B.
Yet somehow, this bizarre mish-mosh actually works.
It is by no means a great or perfect film; but you have to admire its sheer audacity. The Book of Clarence is not like any other film I have seen; and — perhaps most surprising — despite its occasional irreverence, the movie treats Jesus and his teachings with such guileless sincerity and conviction that it almost takes your breath away.
The title role is played by LaKeith Stanfield, whose impressive filmography includes Selma, Get Out, Short Term 12 and Knives Out, along with Straight Outta Compton (as Snoop Dogg) and 2021’s Judas and the Black Messiah, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Clarence, a stoner, thief and con man, owes an enormous sum to a local kingpin; so he decides to cash in on the popularity of Christ by becoming “the 13th apostle.” (Perhaps it will help that his twin brother, Thomas, is already a member of the band.) When that doesn’t work, Clarence decides instead to proclaim himself an alternate messiah.
At first, this only makes him more corrupt than ever; but ultimately, it winds up propelling him toward goodness, courage and generosity. Yet for most of the film, he still refuses to take Christianity on faith; he insists, in a cynical and very modern fashion, that “knowledge is stronger than belief.”
From the trailers — and perhaps also from my description of the film’s disparate elements — you might be inclined to expect a comedy. And the movie does have several funny moments — particularly Clarence’s early interaction with John the Baptist, beautifully played by David Oyelowo.
While this famous gospel prophet would actually have been long dead by the end of Christ’s ministry, the film’s portrayal is, surprisingly, somehow comical, convincing and totally consistent with John’s character in the New Testament.
Yet despite some humor, this movie becomes increasingly serious as Clarence grows in stature and fortitude; its final scenes are very thought-provoking — but at the same time so painful that I was starting to feel betrayed.
Until that amazing coda came along. Like Jesus himself, it winds up redeeming just about everything.
The fine cast includes RJ Cyler, so great in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Alfre Woodard as Jesus’ mother (another reverent and respectful portrait); James McAvoy as Pilate; and Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I will leave you to look for on your own, as he is pretty much unrecognizable here.
Clarence was produced, written and directed by Jeymes Samuel, who, like Stanfield, is also a musician. Samuel even composed the incidental music for this film; and he must have worked on the peerlessly appropriate soundtrack, which really helps tie together the movie’s mix of old and new.
After 2021’s The Harder They Fall, this is only Samuel’s second full-length feature; but here’s hoping it won’t be his last. Any writer who can be this hip while also treating Christianity with respect is definitely someone to keep an eye on.
But I sure would like to know what that final idea was that Clarence had…