After Jeymes Samuels (AKA The Bullitts) stormed the BFI London Film Festival in 2021 with The Harder They Fall, he quickly established himself as an emerging new talent in the British filmmaking scene by using traditional narratives to highlight Black characters and his unique ear for music. Two years on and he is back with a bolder, gutsier and bigger production – a biblical epic comedy-drama.
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler and Omar Sy, The Book of Clarence follows the eponymous Clarence (Stanfield) and his best friend Elijah (Cyler) as they struggle to make ends meet in 29 AD Jerusalem. They owe debts to local criminal Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) and Clarence resorts to gain protection and money by claiming he is the new Messiah.
When the film opens, it introduces Clarence as a shameless thief, dealer and liar who tries to talk himself out of trouble. Yet despite his criminal actions, that doesn’t stop him from being, deep down, a good man. He takes care of his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and tries to make himself worthy of his love interest (played by Anna Diop), yet an instilled need for survival has made him a realist. As a result, he firmly dismisses talk of miracles and the Messiah (more specifically, Jesus Christ), who has been slowly gaining influence in the city and of whom his twin brother Thomas is a follower.
Through Clarence’s journey, Samuels plays on the idea of how bad people with good hearts aspire to be somebody when everyone talks down to them like a nobody. Clarence tries to escape a likely death by doing what he normally does – talking his way out of it! But when that fails, he decides to take an incredulous route that becomes a route to integrity that sees him redeem part of himself. This enables some blasphemous comments that result in moments of hilarity, especially as Clarence struggles to understand the Immaculate Conception and a false attempt to become baptised fails miserably. Delivering quick wit and big laughs, they offer a lightness before the narrative takes a more sombre tone.
The light tone and fast pace slowly become weighed down as Clarence’s lies catch up with his conscience. By this point, he has already attracted the attention of the Romans and gotten on the wrong foot of the Apostles, who are unhappy with him “copying” Christ. The narrative doesn’t overly emphasise the influence of Jesus nor the need for a Messiah but makes the most of the enmity of the Romans, most of whom are notably White. With the Jews being predominately Black, a metaphorical sense of oppression presents an underlying factor in the narrative but forms a subtle talking point that not only separates The Book of Clarence from older, grandiose films with similar narratives such as The Ten Commandments and Spartacus but provide a modern and poignant take on the Crucifixion. Samuels raises his game as a director and screenwriter to create a rich and visually clever film, with the location of Materna, Italy, bringing rusticity to the narrative. Similar to The Harder They Fall, he incorporates an ambitious score and soundtrack that brings modern and dramatic notes that emphasise Tom Eagles’ smart and occasionally fast-paced editing.
In terms of casting, Lakeith shines as twins Clarence and Thomas, bringing calmness, ferocity and charm through his intense performance. Sy is an underdeveloped but domineering presence as gladiator Baddius while the ever-consistent RJ Cyler brings a sense of mischief as Elijah. In addition, McAvoy and Cumberbatch are notable additions and bring unexpected layers of comedy in their small roles.
On paper, The Book of Clarence is a daring follow-up project for Jeymes Samuels but he puts his magic touch into a genre that some audiences may feel is dated. Thanks to his bold vision (and sound) and Stanfield’s brilliant performance, he brings biblical epics bang up to date.
Director: Jeymes Samuels
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard
Runtime: 136 minutes