I don’t often declare shenanigans on people’s opinions, but for anyone that looks at The Book of Clarence and cries foul, I will do so in a heartbeat. To do so is an indicator that this film was not actually watched but looked at on the surface and seen as blasphemy. If anything, this film is one that is anything but.
Written and directed by Jeymes Samuel (who is also responsible for one of my favorite films in recent years in The Harder They Fall), Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is a down-on-his-luck hustler living in the same time frame of Jesus’ ministry. When a debt becomes more than he can handle, he ultimately decides that as an unbeliever, he will replicate what Jesus is doing and become a messiah himself. Alongside his brother, Elijah (RJ Cyler), and a couple of others along the way, Clarence sets off on a journey that takes him to places he never thought he would go to both physically and metaphorically.
I cannot state this enough: THIS IS NOT A FILM THAT MOCKS FAITH OR CHRISTIANITY. This is the story of someone whose existence could have taken place during the same time as Jesus and how he processes the world around him. There is a TON of little details that work into the larger picture of this story that are done brilliantly (Clarence doesn’t speak in the same manner of everyone else which furthers his character as an outsider, the design of his hair as he becomes a Messiah resembling a false crown of thorns, his connection to the Disciples underlying a part of his character itself) while Samuel’s love of the old school Biblical epic films like Ben-Hur or Spartacus is on full-display. The script itself is smart, witty, and engaging while making a very strong statement about faith and the strength of family that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with any form of gospel message that I appreciated as a man of faith myself. The sequences that involved Jesus and the Apostles are pretty much taken from the New Testament stories that we all know with just enough expansion on them that give a new depth to some of the names we have grown up hearing on Sunday mornings without taking away from Clarence’s story. To have that level of balance without leaning too hard or preachy into the gospels deserves more respect than I can even write here.
There is also a star-studded cast here that also includes Anna Diop, Omar Sy, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, Alfre Woodard, Caleb McLaughlin, and David Oyelowo that bring their characters to life brilliantly. There are no performances here that are not stellar (with a couple of surprises I won’t put here, but they are on display from the opening credits). And just like I did for The Harder They Fall, I have every intention of purchasing a soundtrack that is also again produced by Jay-Z (as Shawn Carter) and others.
When writing my comments after the film for the studio, I could not help but use phrases like “thought provoking” and “conversation starter” because simply, there was no more perfect words to use. Sure, there are moments that are turned up to eleven for theatrical reasons, but again, they are not done in a way that is intended to disrespect or downplay those that carry a level of faith that they hold dear. I am fascinated that this was a second-week-of-January release given how good The Book of Clarence truly is. This is a film that needs to be re-visited later in the year as my colleagues on every level make their list of outstanding films. 2024 is coming in HOT, and The Book of Clarence is leading the way.