Out with the superhero movies, in with the biblical epic? From Journey to Bethlehem to The Chosen’s fourth season and Martin Scorsese’s recent announcement that he’ll start shooting a movie based on Shūsaku Endō’s A Life of Jesus later this year, Jesus movies are multiplying. Maybe, just maybe, 2024 will even be the year that Terrence Malick finally finishes editing his long-gestating Jesus project, The Way of the Wind.
In the middle of all this is The Book of Clarence, which—it seems safe to say—offers a perspective on the New Testament you won’t get from more devotional or high-concept films. Inspired by movies as different as Ben-Hur and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and featuring a majority-Black cast, Clarence tells a sometimes epic, sometimes humorous story that is not quite about Jesus himself.
Focused on a fictitious character who lives just to the side of the greatest story ever told, the film is written and directed by Jeymes Samuel, also known as The Bullitts, the rapper turned filmmaker who made waves a few years ago with the Black Western The Harder They Fall. That film, as stylized as it was, was widely touted as a “corrective” to the Western genre and to popular perceptions of the past, drawing attention to real-life outlaws and lawmen who had largely been neglected by previous filmmakers.
The Book of Clarence, in American theaters Friday, has a somewhat different agenda. Here, Samuel is indulging his love of classic Bible epics while filtering the genre through his own experiences as someone who grew up in “the hood” (i.e., a mostly Black public housing development in London).
“Clarence is your everyman,” Samuel told Esquire. “Clarence is literally just a dude in the hood, through the eyes of which we look at that era and learn stories.” The Book of Clarence may be set in Jerusalem in A.D. 33, but the world of the film is playfully anachronistic, with gladiators, chariots, and crucifixions existing side-by-side with nightclubs, weed dealers, and hair salons.
That might sound like a recipe for comedy, and The Book of Clarence certainly is that—at times. But anyone expecting an updated version of History of the World, Part IIwill be in for a surprise. Strikingly, there is a genuine quest for spiritual self-improvement at the heart of this film, and it sometimes goes beyond Bible-movie tropes to engage more directly with the Book on which the genre is based.
The film revolves around the titular Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a hapless “seller of ungodly herbs” who happens to be the identical twin brother of the apostle Thomas (also Stanfield). Thomas’s name, of course, is Aramaic for “twin.” Samuel is having some fun with his source material there, but he also flips expectations by turning Thomas—famous, justly or not, for his doubts—into the embodiment of pious religious belief, while making Clarence the skeptic who doesn’t believe in God and is convinced that all of Jesus’ miracles must be mere “tricks.”
Clarence is upset that Thomas has left home to be with Jesus while their mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) was sick. If religion makes people deny their families, he reasons, that’s one more reason to reject it altogether. (The film doesn’t explicitly mention it, but the biblical Jesus commended his disciples for leaving their families to follow him in Matthew 19:27–29 and Luke 18:28–30, and it’s fascinating to see a Bible movie explore what it would have felt like to be one of the relatives left behind.)
Clarence does think religion can have its uses, though—and here, Samuel’s script is at its weakest. When Clarence finds himself in debt to a local gangster (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), he turns to local religious leaders, hoping their aura can somehow rub off on him and protect him from the gang.
First, he asks John the Baptist (a very funny David Oyelowo) to dunk him in his “holy water.” Then, he asks Jesus’ apostles to let him join their ranks. And when that doesn’t pan out, he finally decides to go into the messiah business for himself, posing as a new Christ and getting his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) to play the dead or disabled people “healed” by his touch. The crowds give him offerings for his “miracles,” money he plans to use to pay his debt.
Clarence never explains why a gangster would be so impressed by religious conversion that he’d cancel Clarence’s debt, nor does it make Clarence’s instant celebrity remotely plausible. (The title character in Life of Brian attracted followers unintentionally—that was the joke.)
It often feels like Samuel wanted so badly to include certain scenes and characters that he jammed them into the story under the flimsiest of pretexts. When Judas (Micheal Ward) dares Clarence to prove his worthiness by freeing some slaves, for example, Clarence ends up fighting a gladiator named Barabbas the Immortal (Omar Sy). Samuel clearly wanted to film old-fashioned gladiatorial combat, but the story around that scene makes little sense.
Clarence’s miracles may be fake, but the miracles of Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock), when we finally get to see them, are anything but. Indeed, they go quite a bit beyond the biblical template.
When Clarence meets Jesus’ mother, Mary (Alfre Woodard), she describes how Jesus turned clay pigeons into live birds when he was a child, a story that comes straight out of the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas. When Jesus confronts a crowd that wants to stone Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), he doesn’t merely talk to them; he freezes their stones in mid-air like Neo freezing bullets in The Matrix. And when Jesus reveals at the Last Supper that one of his disciples will betray him, the disciples are suddenly frozen in place—with one halting, notable exception—in a scene that harks back to famous paintings of the moment, as well as earlier Hollywood mimicry of those works.
Samuel plays with iconography in other ways too. The fact that non-Roman characters are almost all played by Black actors is at first barely acknowledged. But it becomes significant when a confrontation with Roman soldiers plays on modern concerns about official racism and police brutality. More caustically, the film suggests that the white Jesus of later art stems from a case of mistaken identity. Unfortunately, the film’s accounting of that mistake is one of the many plot twists with too little narrative sense. (No spoilers here, but it’s almost a causality loop.)
Through it all—including fantastical touches such as the lightbulb-like orbs that appear over Clarence’s head when he has an idea—Clarence keeps returning to more earnest themes. “Be the body, not the shadow,” says Clarence’s mother, concerned that her son is drifting through life. When Clarence tries to tell Varinia (Anna Diop), the woman with whom he’s smitten, that he’s a “changed man,” she replies that she believes in growth, not change. And Clarence says repeatedly that “knowledge is stronger than belief,” a statement first deployed to explain his lack of faith that takes on new meaning as the story progresses.
When the film premiered at the BFI London Film Festival three months ago, many reviews noted that it goes through very abrupt tonal shifts, and most critics seemed to think the film was better in its earlier, funnier sections. I’m not so sure. Clarence is riddled with plot holes and inexplicable twists, but the early scenes are an especially disjointed mess, while the final stretch is where it all begins to cohere.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, the ending is also the portion of the film where Jesus becomes a bigger part of the narrative, while Clarence’s story falls into the familiar pattern of a trial before Pilate (James McAvoy) and all that comes after it. It’s possible that Samuel is just going through the motions here, but I think not. Thanks in no small part to Stanfield’s performance, the film’s last scenes have a sincerity that goes beyond the genre conventions and Samuel’s playful tweaks. The Book of Clarence is no gospel, but it has an undeniable fascination with the Good News.
Peter T. Chattaway is a film critic with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Abbotsford, BC, Canada.