Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence isn’t a parody of biblical epics, contrary to what its poster, cast, and soundtrack featuring Lil Wayne, Kodak Black, and Doja Cat might signal to you. It has a lot in common with Samuel’s deliciously visual and subversive western The Harder They Fall, which was significant beyond the fact that it was a work of the genre boasting an entirely Black cast. Samuel serves up a lot of the same here, including gorgeous scenery, unexpected fade-outs and editing choices, a dynamic score, and more than a couple great performances. What’s lacking here, however, might’ve been the most important ingredient — tone.
The Book of Clarence tells the story of the titular character (LaKeith Stanfield), a feckless lay-about living in A.D. 33 Jerusalem. The opening scene involves Clarence and his sidekick Elijah (RJ Cyler) losing a chariot race to Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor). It was a desperate move at some extra cash Clarence could’ve used to pay back Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), to whom he’s in debt. The entire sequence is incredibly convincing, mirroring the famous chariot races in Ben-Hur, with Rob Hardy’s cinematography immersing us in the rumbling of the carts’ wheels on the cobblestone streets, the frenetic speed of the horses, and the treacherous hazards of dirty beggars and dart-shooting gypsies.
Losing the race underscores just how desperately Clarence needs to find money, direction, and a purpose. He’s dwarfed in the shadow of his apostle brother, Thomas (also Stanfield), who abandoned their mother (Marianna Jean-Baptiste) and estranged himself from the family entirely. Clarence’s next move is to get baptized by John the Baptist (David Oyelowo) despite being an atheist and a committed non-believer; a scene made strong thanks to Oyelowo’s inspired turn as a sarcastic holy-man who isn’t buying Clarence’s sudden turn-of-faith. Next, he thinks he can free a gaggle of gladiator slaves, but only manages to free Barabbas (Omar Sy), which nearly costs him his life.
Finally, Clarence hatches a plan. There’s a fella named Jesus, who has been roaming Jerusalem conducting miracles such as walking on water and making the blind see. Clarence gets Elijah and Barabbas to buy into his traveling salvation show con, and feels he can become a messiah, earn riches that’ll pay off his debts, and finally carve out of a life for himself that will make his brother respect him.
The Book of Clarence adopts the laconic pace of Clarence himself. Much of the film is centered around Clarence’s interactions with townspeople. Alfre Woodard’s Mother Mary is called upon when Clarence is trying to learn Jesus’ “tricks,” and tries to reason with him that this is a very bad idea. Micheal Ward is a devious Judas who looks to betray both the (real) Messiah and Clarence, while James McAvoy shows up in the third chapter as Pontius Pilate, leader of the Romans. This movie has all this cast and still makes room for Benedict Cumberbatch.
The first chapter leads you to believe you’re watching a Monty Python-esque take on biblical epics, with a fledgling slacker dynamic between Clarence and Elijah emerging in conjunction with weed jokes and other dry humor. Mix that with Samuel’s propensity to over-direct (not a criticism) even the most banal scenes of dialog, Hardy’s gorgeous photography, and a bumping soundtrack, and I was catching a serious vibe from this mix of aesthetics. But then, somewhere along the way, Samuel sidelines the humor and makes things drearily serious.
It’s also about the time we need to acknowledge that LaKeith Stanfield is becoming a bit like Timothée Chalamet insofar that he inadvertently becomes one of the least interesting characters on-screen, especially when positioned alongside a massive ensemble. That wouldn’t be a problem if he weren’t the main character. But Stanfield’s disengaged personality begins to wear on The Book of Clarence, especially when you have the entertainingly reactive RJ Cyler mugging in the background and Omar Sy making something out of nothing with Barabbas. At two hours long, Stanfield’s apathetic character and the film’s descent into Last Temptation of Christ-level seriousness with its crucifixion climax almost dares you to remain engaged.
Samuel’s latest pays homage to a series of religious epics, perhaps none more than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments in both story structure (the film is divided into three chapters, with title cards that are unmistakably DeMillian). The multihyphenate talent is a force to be reckoned with behind the camera, and his ambition continues with this sophomore effort, even as the message and humor gets lost in its aesthetic accomplishments.
NOTE: The Book of Clarence is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by: Jeymes Samuel.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!