'The Book of Clarence' Review
January 8, 2024
Writer/director Jeymes Samuel is more interested in making The Book of Clarence into a good time than a good film, which makes it just good enough to be a good use of your time and money (this sentence was brought to you by the word “good”). The British multi-hyphenate’s sophomore feature contains much of the same DNA as his Netflix-backed debut, The Harder They Fall, featuring an all-black cast in a genre that has largely ignored that demographic. This time the setting has shifted from the American West to Jerusalem circa AD33.
Things open with a drag race on sandy streets, a chariot race to be exact. The titular character (LaKeith Stanfield) and his friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) have wagered a lot of money and horses against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor). We’re only two minutes in and Samuel has made two references to Ben-Hur, the first being the Roman font title credits and sweeping music. But these references aren’t just plucked for their 1:1 value, they’re used to produce a remix of a classic tale that has repeatedly been told in a similar fashion for nearly a century. The camera whips and zooms around during the race, sometimes opting for POV shots as the local Gypsies sabotage the event by throwing rocks and spears.
The race is lost, which puts Clarence and Elijah in a pay-up-or-be-crucified situation with Jedidiah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who lent them the funds to wager. Clarence is a lot like Howard Ratner from Uncut Gems: someone who thinks of himself as smarter than those chasing him, yet he always seems destined to be caught. It doesn’t help that he has a more upstanding twin brother named Thomas (also Stanfield) who has recently become one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. To Clarence, the allure of religion isn’t the purity of faith or promise of something larger than yourself, it’s the status it grants you. People flock to Jesus and his apostles like their movie stars, requesting miracles and attention.
To pay off his debt, Clarence decides to recreate Jesus’ “tricks,” such as healing the blind, raising the dead, and preaching the gospel. He becomes the first “religion for profit” pastor, beating Kenneth Copeland at his own game two thousand years earlier. While taking shots at uber-wealthy people of faith, Samuel also instills a dash of rogue politicians, with Clarence making “Knowledge is stronger than belief!” his campaign slogan. But it’s not just Clarence that deserves scorn, it’s the people who eat up his words and acts despite them being obviously hollow. A little more time spent on this aspect would have been appreciated, as well as the mixture of comedy and drama. This is a case of style over substance, and the MCU disease where every dramatic situation needs to be undercut by a whacky joke.
In the case of Samuel, the style is just as much the substance as the actual substance. He pulls out every trick in his directorial arsenal to make this the “wickedly dope time” he wants you to have. Split screens, a bevy of iris shots, augmented colors, and a Jay-Z soundtrack keep things flowing at a decent pace throughout the nearly 140-minute runtime. There’s also the enormously entertaining cast featuring so many people who would have never been given a chance to star in a film like this despite the cultural makeup of that time and place. Cyler, David Oyelowo, and Omar Sy supply the laughs, with cameos by Alfre Woodard and Benedict Cumberbatch being the film’s most laugh-out-loud moments.
With January primarily being a time when studios dump their slop and serious awards titles slowly expand in hopes of Oscar gold, it’s nice to see a film like The Book of Clarence offer a decent alternative. Its messiness is more of a feature than a bug, and there’s more than enough on its mind and on the screen to keep it from falling victim to the cinematic hell that is this month.