“The Book of Clarence” is a satisfying stylized remix of well-worn formulas that manages to entertain while wholeheartedly affirming a Christian worldview.
Biblical epics have a prestige history in classic Hollywood, particularly ones about Jesus. “The Robe” and “Ben Hur,” in particular, made a big impression on pop culture, telling the story of Jesus through the eyes of a fictional character who has his life changed by encountering him. This formula was parodied in the classic Monty Python film “The Life of Brian” and the process for making such a film mocked in the recent Cohen Brothers film “Hail, Caesar!”
It clearly made an impression on writer-director Jeymes Samuel as well, who decided to make a mashup of both those classic films and “The Life of Brian” with a focus on a Black cast.
“I always wanted to tell a story about that time and place.” Samuel told BET. “I have always wanted to venture into that time because I’m an ardent student and lover of cinema. Growing up, we all watched ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Spartacus.’ While we can relate to the stories, we could never relate to the visual representation. There’s no one of color in those movies. I’ve never met a white person who looks like Charlton Heston. But all those stories are kind of like about the ‘hood. It was almost my mission, a haunting mission, to tell a story about the environment that I grew up in, but in the Biblical days. Make it look exactly like the environment I grew up in; things that we do get involved in the biblical days and show how closely those two are in unison.”
Times certainly have changed, while almost all depictions of Bible stories were once played by white actors, with the premiere modern depiction of Jesus in “The Chosen” having the characters played by real Middle Eastern actors.
Angel Studios’ “His Only Son” followed suit, and the Broadway show adaptation of “The Prince of Egypt” also cast non-white actors. Now comes the “The Book of Clarence.” There seems to be more room than ever for non-white actors to be at the center of stories about The Bible. It’s especially heartening that shows like “The Chosen” have not caused any controversy by doing this, with its primarily white Evangelical faith-based audience fully embracing the move.
But “The Book of Clarence” is doing more than just making a Jesus movie with a Black cast. The trailers showed a comedic take on the story about a man who was trying to fool people into thinking he was a Messiah as a way of getting ahead in the world–crossing “Ben Hur” with “Life of Brian.” That is something that could easily fall into tasteless irreverence that loses the gravitas of the story it’s trying to tell. “The Harder They Fall,” Jaymes’s final directorial effort, was amazing stylistically, but felt shallow thematically. It would be easy for this movie to suffer the same fate.
I need not have worried. “The Book of Clarence” is an entertaining and God-glorifying hero’s journey story of redemption that — if not for some of its PG-13 material and off-beat style — would be right at home in any faith-based movie environment, but far better quality-wise than most.
The film follows a streetwise but struggling man named Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) who is trying to find a better life for himself and his family, make himself worthy to the woman he loves and prove that he’s not a nobody. Captivated by the power and glory of the rising Messiah and His apostles, Clarence decides to try to fool people into thinking he’s the true Messiah — until his plan starts to all unravel.
Where the movie truly excels is in how it mixes familiar formulas from beloved genres together and blends it with a truly energetic collage of styles, including the blending of “Life of Brian” for its Jesus-contemporary comedy of a mistaken Messiah with the “Liar Revealed” arc of an “Elmer Gantry” or a “Believe Me” with a Biblical Epic grandeur and Jesus-based redemption arc of a “Ben Hur” or a “The Robe,” the sympathetic underdog protagonist of a “Happy Gilmore” and the modern style and satire of modern black films like “Sorry to Bother You” or a “BlackkKlansman.”
At the same time, the film manages to have a true underdog hero’s journey stuffed into a Biblical epic. Beyond this satire story, the style itself shines, borrowing the aesthetics of old-time Biblical movies and remixes it with very self-conscious modern energy. In doing so, the movie creates a truly fun experience, while still having enough weight to not feel like an irreverent farce.
What was truly surprising is how affirming of Christianity the movie was to the degree that it is unironically a faith-based Hollywood film. Clarence starts out as a doubter who doesn’t believe in God or Jesus as the Messiah, but he — and the audience — end up seeing proof of and believing in both. It would have been easy for the movie to try to have it both ways — affirming the validity of faith but keeping the reality ambiguous. But we and a doubting Clarence witness miracles, he affirms that he doesn’t just believe, he “knows” and he at the end fully affirms Jesus’s Lordship. In fact, if it weren’t for the R-rating, this film would fit in very nicely with the messages and formula of a typical faith-based film.
Samuel certainly succeeds in making a movie that puts himself (and larger representations of the Black experience) into the story and he does it surprisingly without subverting the story itself.
If the film has a weakness, it’s that while it mixes very well the formulas it draws from, it doesn’t develop those themes much beyond the surface. Clarence is the ne’er-do-well with a heart of gold who must learn a lesson. He says that “knowledge is stronger than belief,” but the movie never develops the difference between the two. Some character leaps come out of nowhere — like Clarence realizing that he should give up his ill-gotten gains to save others — but we’re never told why except that, well, that’s what the formula for this kind of movie says he needs to do.
There are other minor issues, too. We held a really long time on a deeply sexualized dance with a painted-blue lady that felt unnecessary. There are a couple of theological/Biblical errors that will rankle those who know better. (The movie follows the lead of “Journey To Bethlehem” by using “Immaculate Conception” to refer to Jesus’s miraculous birth rather than Mary And certain subversions don’t work as well as I think they were intended to like an Benedict Cumberbatch cameo.
Even so, “The Book of Clarence” shines as an amazing example of how to do a faith-based Christian film well that both does a clever twist on a Biblical story while shamelessly proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
By Joseph Holmes, an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.world, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephholmesstudios.com.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Presbyterian Outlook.