by Philip Price
Director: Jeymes Samuel
Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy & RJ Cyler
Rated: PG-13 (violence, drug use, language, some suggestive material & smoking)
Runtime: 2 hours & 9 minutes
“The Book of Clarence” is an ambitious (audacious?) yet disjointed film that seems to attempt more than it intends leaving little to latch onto, but much to consider. It’s a conundrum of both a film and experience. Coming out of writer/director/composer Jeymes Samuel's 2021 feature debut, “The Harder They Fall,” it was more than evident the multi-hyphenate had a distinct mission, but almost more importantly: a distinct style to match it. With as much noted it was easy to walk into Samuel's follow-up with a certain expectation of what it might be. As “The Harder They Fall” made it clear white people were not alone in the westward expansion following the Civil War, “The Book of Clarence” would seem to run with the fact they were essentially non-existent in Nazareth in the time of Jesus (or the Messiah, as he was probably more often referred to during his life). The correcting of the consistent portrayal of Jesus as a white, European man throughout history would then seem to be the anchor of Samuel's religious satire especially given this depiction has come under scrutiny as of late with the legacy of racism in society being more critically discussed. While this is certainly on the itinerary though, so are about 20 other items that seem to have sprung from Samuel's original intent through the process of putting this initial idea to paper. We can see the bones of Samuel's original idea in renovating the Biblical epic, but as our titular Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) becomes swept up in and ultimately accepts the idea that Jesus may be the real Messiah so too does the movie in becoming an actual Biblical epic.
At just over two hours it doesn't quite go all the way to fit that bill, but though there are moments of biting irreverence these are always directed more toward how the familiar events of the Bible have come to be perceived rather than toward the events themselves or so seems to be the case, I could certainly have misinterpreted. The cause for such uncertainty comes with how reverential Samuel ends up treating the cornerstones of his protagonist's journey. These tonal transformations make it difficult to identify a genuine response to the material, but the film doesn't leave you with nothing. More than anything “The Book of Clarence” will leave many confused as to what meaning we're meant to take from this double-edged parable which - I guess - could be seen as appropriate given the conflicting nature of faith for those who question it. There is a line in the film that states, "Any man who follows rules blindly is easily overcome," which is a direct challenge to one of if not the mainstays of what "faith" is meant to illustrate. This point of view is further emphasized when, in the final act of the film, Stanfield's false Messiah calls for enlightenment over punishment. Both sentiments would seem to move the thematic needle towards the challenging of ideas and the broadening of intelligence for the sake of insight and progress as favorable and more sensical than divine knowledge and irrational acceptance, yet the film still concludes with a message that remains largely pro-faith. Hence, the confusion and conflict.
In many ways it would seem Samuel is doing his best to reconcile the contradicting pillars of faith that he still finds comforting with the desire to justify and account for the actions of man much like how my biology professor at my Southern community college would try and reconcile the facts of his subject with the "facts" of religion. While undoubtedly challenging, that bio teacher made some convincing arguments not only for such philosophies co-existing but complementing one another as well. Unfortunately, Samuel is unable to do the same. This is what makes discussing “The Book of Clarence” difficult as it isn't particularly successful in conveying its dissonances and the opposing ideologies never coalesce, but individual moments still resonate and there is something about the content that can't help but concern your conscience. Split into three chapters and evolving Clarence from a cynical atheist to a bona fide believer doesn't necessarily work with this structure given the turn is rather abrupt and held until the third act where, again, the tone shifts drastically. The climax is moving, but narratively - it's weak. Samuel's screenplay needed to be revised and re-written multiple times to hone in on and better develop a throughline theme given how he planned to execute, but in seeing (what I'm assuming is) such an early draft of these ideas rendered onscreen we can track the author working from a place of his pessimism, searching for the center of his faith, and hoping by the conclusion that he's convinced us - and himself - that he found it.
The execution though, is clearly where Samuel is the most inspired as the film - which was shot by Alex Garland's frequent collaborator Rob Hardy - both looks as incredible (locations!) and as epic as Samuel no doubt intended; the aesthetic eliciting thoughts of “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” Samuel's style also extends to him composing the score and frequently performing on the soundtrack while also bringing in high-caliber collaborators such as Jay-Z (who also produced the film), Lil Wayne and Doja Cat but the highlight of these anachronistic music choices is when we get a dance sequence to The Jones Girls' "Nights Over Egypt". Inauspicious is the fact this is the only moment of levity at this level as the remaining moments of either subversion or that show sparks of satire are so few and far between the superior cast playing them often feel wasted. Chief among these offenses is having David Oyelowo's hilarious John the Baptist in only a single scene. Omar Sy's Barabbas, with less than half the screen time of Clarence, in many ways becomes the emotional anchor of the film despite it not depicting what that character is most famous for which, for the record, would have only added more depth to the drama and conflict. RJ Cyler continues to prove his energy and charisma are unmatched and, unfortunately, overlooked as he still hasn't landed that one role to launch him to the next level whereas both Anna Diop and Teyana Taylor - who have proven their charisma and energy in other projects - simply have nothing to do here. As for Stanfield, I enjoy his presence in the right role and even when he is bruised and battered here, he still looks cool as hell, but his performance either doesn't do the work the screenplay asked of him or the screenplay itself didn't give him enough to work with.
What “The Book of Clarence” does succeed at communicating is how a person, this man who would become the Messiah of the Christian faith, is not simply whatever single-faceted entity followers or non-believers alike choose to apply to him. The many iterations of this prophet we see represented in “The Book of Clarence” are the many different aspects of this man, who he was, who he felt he needed to be, and how he was perceived. Nicholas Pinnock is the humble, quiet leader, the actual Jesus whose actions speak louder than any speeches. Stanfield portrays what a prophet was believed to be at the time and lives out the experience someone treated as "special" or "important" might enjoy and then there is Benedict Cumberbatch who, in maybe the film's best bit, is a vagrant who is blessed by Pinnock's Jesus and transformed into the image of the savior that has become most familiar to people the world over. Samuel doesn't hit this theme enough throughout and doesn't carry it through in the most effective fashion thus the comment regarding revisions, but as far as revisionist history itself is concerned “The Book of Clarence” challenges orthodox views just enough to appreciate its strong moments despite a true lack of solidarity within its design.