I’ll never forget the Sunday morning I saw my mother step over my “sleeping” older brother to wake me up for church. I was livid. “Why do I have to go and he doesn’t? He needs Jesus way more than I do” Mom, tried to change the subject by saying I needed to get communion. To which i responded, “I can get my own damn juice and crackers!” All of which is to say, I’ve never been the most religious person. I can accept there’s something bigger than me and all that, but I’m not deep into religion. So, when I tell you The Book of Clarence made religion something beautiful on the screen to witness. Please know that I tell you no lies.
The Book of Clarence revolves around Clarence (Lakeith Stanfield), a grifter with being dreams of something more than the circumstances of poverty have allowed. He’s joined by Elijah (RJ Cyler), his friend that’s supportive of his schemes. After losing a horse race to Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), Clarence finds himself deeper in debt to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). Clarence had thirty days to pay back his debt or that’s his ass. Clarence then gets the idea to get baptize and join Jesus’ apostles. When Thomas (Clarence’s twin brother), who is also an apostle, dismisses Clarence even after he takes up the near impossible task Judas (Micheal Ward) gives him. We start to see a shift in the mentality of Clarence. He then decides that since Jesus be out here doing
miracles tricks, and people be giving their money for it, he’ll do stage Jesus’ tricks and use that money to pay back his debt.
Clarence be a Fence Around Me
The trailer for The Book of Clarence felt like it would be Pineapple Express in Jerusalem with a hint of Monty Python. This wasn’t that. Writer and director Jeymes Samuel really captured Black folk in Jerusalem A.D. 33 living life and just trying to get by. Clarence isn’t just a stoner or schemer, he’s someone taking risks in order to try and be great. Those risks just get him in danger, and we see how his love interest, Jedediah’s younger sister, Varinia (Anna Diop) already sees a great man that doesn’t need to gamble with his life to leave a mark.
Behind the camera, Jeymes truly makes this world of Jerusalem stand out. There’s something about how he captures the citizens and makes them feel so lively and these historical figures such as Jesus, Judas, and the apostles, and then finds a way to have these larger-than-life figures feel grounded yet still have an air of legend to them. There was a lot of surrealism that’s etched into the movie as well. From the sight of folks floating while getting high to the visual of Clarence getting the idea to “reenact” Jesus’ miracles, and even the fight scenes, Jeymes dialogue and visuals kept the suspension of disbelief in its seat and quiet the entire movie.
Lakeith’s performance as Clarence does so much to navigate this world for the audience as well. The audience sees how the Romans persecute, harass, and try to intimidate the people of Jerusalem, which certainly feels like commentary on racial profiling and police harassment that happens today. The struggles of now are present even back then within this film. There is a careful balance for messages of racism and discrimination to not be ham fisted. Through Lakeith’s portrayal of Clarence as a street savvy everyman, we see the beautiful side of things even amongst the struggle. Lakeith does an incredible job on selling me this story of Clarence’s journey. Omar Sy (Barbaras), Caleb McLaughlin (Dirty Zeke), and RJ Cyler offer an amazing supporting cast for Clarence.
The Book of Clarence feels like an RPG quest almost with how we see this crew make their plan to impersonate a new messiah performing feats as Jesus did come to fruition. What I love about this film is that everyone plays a role that represents how folks may feel about religion. Thomas offers foil to Clarence as thinking of himself as holier because he’s apart of Jesus’ flock. Thomas comes across as those elite folks in the church that be looking down on folks. Whereas Clarence, is someone who needs to see something to believe it. He feels like an agnostic person that’s coming across as arrogant since he thinks having blind faith in something they can prove is foolish.
The film offers different perspectives of religion represented by certain characters. I found myself identifying with Clarence the most. His journey being one that comes full circle is not only something beautiful but something special as he gets to stay true to his version of belief. I really hope that’s enough to get y’all to see the film, because we about to get into the depth of this film. There’s goin be spoilers galore, so go see this film then come back and read on.
His Eye is on the Afro
What I love most about The Book of Clarence is Clarence’s conviction. He thinks it’s wild to be asked to believe in God, this almighty being who allows these horrible things to happen in the world even though he has the power to stop it. On top of that, he’s got his twin brother Thomas, telling him he’s a man without honor. I love how Clarence reminds him that when their mother was sick he’s the one that stayed to tend to her while Thomas went to follow Jesus. We learn even more about Clarence’s character when he and Elijah embark to on the task to free all of the gladiator slaves held by Asher the Torturer (Babs Olusanmokun).
When Asher tells Clarence he can take his most disobedient slave Barabbas the Immortal if he defeats him, I thought Clarence was going to be a Jack Sparrow type a fighter. Someone that relies more on his words and wit and can fight just a bit. I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. Clarence was getting fucking busy with Barabbas. My mans had hands and then got fancy with the sword work while using wits, weapons, and everything at his disposal to defeat Barabbas. After Clarence wins, he declares he came to free all slaves not just one. When he has to accept the results, I love how Barabbas compliments his fighting ability and Clarence tells him, “There’s rules where you fight, where I’m from, we fight to survive.” That is such a small detail but shows that Clarence may be a schemer, but he is also a survivor that knew his life was on the line.
This is where I knew I was siding with Clarence. I could feel a connection with him as he goes back to the apostles, with a freed Barabbas, the best fighter among the slaves mind you, and it’s still not enough to join the Apostles. Thomas brings up the question of his honor again which makes Clarence go off. I mean sure, Clarence was trying to join the Apostles to get protection from owing Jedediah but he completed the task given to him, and now y’all wanna act stank? That elitism is still present in the church today, and I loved how It set Clarence off. My man airs out Thomas for probably not telling Jesus about their sick mother he willingly left behind to join the Apostles and then reams them out for being fools to blindly follow this god when they can’t prove he even exists. I can’t blame Clarence for the act he’s about to put on because what other choice does he have given his circumstances?
When Clarence starts impersonating Jesus’ miracles and proclaims himself the new messiah, the one true thing about the sham he’s putting on are his sermons. Clarence repeatedly says to the masses that knowledge is stronger than belief. Clarence isn’t wrong (and you can argue it he ain’t right), but we see the change that comes over him from pulling this scam. When he has enough money to pay back his debt as well as take care of his mother, Clarence instead uses all the money to free the rest of the slaves. I did not see that coming at all.
The best part is Asher telling him that what he’s done is going to get his name etched in the books of history to which Clarence responds, “Then don’t tell them my name.” My man had the glory he wanted and cast it aside because he knew that shit was ick.
I Said Do You Wanna Black Jesus (Whoop Whoop)
The Book of Clarence not only takes all of the right risks but nails the landing. One scene that stuck with me was when Mary Magdalene is being stoned and Elijah runs to her aid to try and free her from being chained to a wall, then he tries to shield her from the stones being thrown by the angry mob. Fam, then those stones stopped and mid air, and we saw Jesus with the hoodie up walking towards the scene. Maaaan, I sat up in my seat like Stone Cold Steve Austin’s theme song had hit. Now, I dunno bout y’all, but when I saw how many Black folks we had in this movie I was ecstatic, but I worried that Jesus wasn’t going to be depicted as a Black man but white. We saw that flashback to him as a kid, and he was Black but light skinned. I was still worried, so the big reveal of Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) was such a relief for me.
I was so happy to be wrong. There wasn’t a rug that was going to be pulled out from under us. We got a Black Jesus. He spits his, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” speech, heals Mary, and makes a believer of Elijah who runs to tell Clarence what he saw. I thought maybe Elijah jumping in front of Mary was taking away from the scene, but it’s a scene I love because it’s what should have happened. Elijah did not hesitate when he saw Mary in trouble and much like Clarence stepping into that gladiators’ den knowing he may die. Elijah did not move from in front of Mary once he saw she was chained. He was ready to die with Mary right then and there. This is how we want Black men to show up for Black women, and I loved this shit. This is an important element we see come full circle as well.
Clarence still can’t believe the events Elijah is telling him about Jesus’ intervention to save Mary by stopping the stones in mid-air. Elijah is trying to tell Clarence that this dude Jesus is the real deal. Clarence can’t go with it because he has to see it for himself, which makes his arrest by the Romans something more meaningful. Also, the way Jesus’ powers were shown was brilliant. That last supper scene is just a cinematic masterpiece. Jesus telling everyone that one of them will betray him. It will be the person that dips their bread in Mary’s gravy. We then see Judas trying to stop himself from doing the act.
Jesus comments how Judas is at war with himself between his mind and his heart. I wasn’t expecting for Judas to have this scene but how amazing for his motives to be known to the audience instead of it just being a betrayal that we all knew was coming. Seeing Judas trying to stop the act while complaining that he doesn’t even like Mary Magdalene’s cooking fucking killed me. It’s shit like this that makes me so happy when there’s Black folk behind the camera and script. A simple scene with Judas becomes so much more and so different than any other reveal of his betrayal we’ve seen on film.
Now Behold the Lamb
Clarence’s fraud has caught up with him. Through the entire film, we saw Romans trying to snuff out Jesus and keep this whole “Man was born free” shit under wraps. Clarence is presented with a test to prove he isn’t a messiah by Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), the governor of this Roman province. If Clarence can walk across this pool, then obviously he is lying, and if he sinks and drowns (Clarence can’t swim) then he’s innocent. Fam, what the fuck kinda rules?! The film does a great job at showing how far people will go to keep the status quo. How far an empire is willing to go in order to ensure they keep power and that people think freedom is a privilege and not a right.
Seeing Clarence shaking to take that step, knowing here and now he is going to die by drowning, then seeing him open his eyes as he is walking on water, tears coming down his face, confused, amazed, and surprised with everyone. Pontius tells him that he wasn’t going to actually let him drown and now he has to kill him. I ain’t believe that dude for a second. The oppressors always try to make it out like they had your back through this cruel thing they are putting your through. From this point on the measure of Clarence’s morality becomes present as he not only doesn’t give Jesus up when offered a bribe. He says he wouldn’t even sell out anyone, whether they were Jesus or just a baker.
Clarence wanted to not be a nobody and for his name to be known but had no idea that this situation would be the one that defied him. He didn’t believe in Jesus but he’s not willing to give him up. When his brother visits him in jail to make amends, Thomas asks him, after having walked on water, if he now believes in God to which Clarence says, “I don’t believe. I know.” Knowledge is still stronger than belief for Clarence, and he now knew that God was real. It’s from this point on that I was a mess of tears watching this film. Seeing Clarence have to carry the cross and be whipped. His friends Barabbas and Elijah willing to both intervene and kill the Romans. Clarence shakes his head no to the both of them. Clarence knew a revolt would end in death for some or maybe Rome sending more soldiers.
Seeing the crowd call for Clarence, his friends, mothers, and countrymen y’all, this truly showed Jerusalem as a community showing up for their own in the same way Elijah showed up for Mary Magdalene. When Clarence falls from the pain of carrying the cross and Cabbage (Chase Dillon) comes from the crowd to help him pick it up, I was fucking done, man. Cabbage saw Clarence as a loser but now has gained his respect. I was a water park of emotions, man. Again, I’m not a religious person but this shit right here? This was executed perfectly. When describing the scene to my sister, she stopped me because she wanted to see the movie herself. She then said she remembered Passion of the Christ when it came out but only because it was so graphic.
The Book of Clarence Brought the Sunshine
I thought The Book of Clarence did an amazing job not leaning into tropes or graphic displays. I appreciated how the majority of Clarence’s pain is told through the crowd watching what’s happening to him or Clarence’s up close facial reactions. Through all this hurt and emotion, there was still enough humor left to see how Jesus got misconstrued as being a white man due to Jesus giving a beggar named Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch) healing and a “Midas touch” and now he’s being crucified and everyone thinks that’s gotta be Jesus cause he looks so trustworthy and…white.
Jeymes Samuel did an amazing job of making the story feel like a true rollercoaster of emotion and being able to insert humor that doesn’t bring the audience of out of the scene and get right back into the weight of hurt or seriousness that’s still being dealt with. I wish more folks were talking about this movie. I never thought I’d be saying a movie dealing with religion would be on my top ten list but this movie for me is top 5. It’s a great adaptation of Jesus’ story through the tale of Clarence, who represents the “everyman” archetype. Seeing Jerusalem full of Black people living their lives, doing hair, dancing, and being a real community was something entirely different for me. Yeah, this is a comedy but really The Book of Clarence is something truly special.