The Book of Clarence Review

The Book of Clarence: A Quirky and Provocative Comedy for the Brave

The Book of Clarence opens in theaters on January 12, 2024. This review is based on a screening at the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.

When watching a film, it’s narrow-minded to ask, “Who is this for?” A film has the potential to resonate with anyone. However, for individuals from marginalized communities, finding cinema that reflects their lived experiences, culture, and values can be a challenge. Yet, cinema provides a unique opportunity to broaden one’s perspective and be pleasantly surprised by unexpected shifts in tone and philosophy. It allows us to find joy in the unlikeliest settings and challenge our preconceived notions.

With that said, who exactly is The Book of Clarence targeting? This extremely violent comedy set in ancient Jerusalem, starring a stoned false Messiah, surrealistically satirizing present-day racism, incorporating musical numbers, and boldly positioning Black Jesus as the true savior, raises questions about its intended audience. However, questioning the target audience does not imply that the film is bad. Jeymes Samuel, the director of the audacious Black western The Harder They Fall, brings his distinctive style and flavor to his latest creation. It’s difficult to recall a period film featuring Black characters that is equally fun, exciting, and absurd. Although life for Black individuals in the Wild West was far from easy, Samuels now transports us to an even more brutal period in history: 33 AD, just weeks before Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Jerusalem’s Black inhabitants face the ruthless oppression of the occupying (all white) Roman forces, who crucify anyone they deem a false messiah.

The Book of Clarence Review

We’re introduced to the eponymous Clarence (played by LaKeith Stanfield) through an unsettling shot of crucified men. The camera slowly zooms in on Stanfield’s soulful eyes as blood drips from the nails in his hands and feet. The story then jumps back a month earlier when Clarence and his loyal sidekicks, Elijah (played by the charming RJ Cyler), lose a chariot race to the badass Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor). As a consequence of their loss, they must either pay the king, King Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), within a month or forfeit their lives. At first, Clarence contemplates becoming one of Jesus’ apostles as a means of protection, following in the footsteps of his twin brother Thomas (also portrayed by Stanfield). However, he soon realizes that skipping a step might be easier and decides to assume the role of the messiah himself. At this point, a disconcerting feeling sets in, not because the film derails, but because one can’t help but anticipate the discussions that will arise from a pro-Christian film with a false Black messiah protagonist encountering a witty, dreadlocked Jesus.

Some of the satire in the film is delightfully crowd-pleasing. The running gag of Romans acting like entitled individuals, similar to a bunch of Karens or corrupt cops, never gets old. They play the victim role while actively harassing the Black population, persistently demanding identification (hilariously presented as tiny scrolls of papyrus). Samuels skillfully lands even the silliest of punchlines while turning the style up to maximum. Brothels are transformed into Afrofuturistic utopias reminiscent of ’00s Hype Williams music videos, and drug dens transport patrons into the clouds, clinging to reality only by a loose grip on a hookah pipe. At times, this version of Jerusalem feels slightly underpopulated, particularly when Clarence embarks on a mission to free enslaved gladiators and finds only a handful of men. Nevertheless, every scene onscreen is exquisitely colorful and meticulously lit, complemented by a hip-hop and R&B soundtrack.

The minor characters in the film provide great entertainment. James McAvoy and Micheal Ward give captivating performances as Pontius Pilate and Judas, respectively. David Oyelowo delivers a hilarious portrayal of a disbelieving John the Baptist. Above all, Alfre Woodard’s portrayal of Mary stands out, as she rightfully slaps Clarence when he questions the immaculate conception and steadfastly declares, “I was minding my own virgin business, just being a virgin!”

Although comparisons to Life of Brian are inevitable, The Book of Clarence differs more than one would expect from the Monty Python comedy that faced accusations of blasphemy and bans in numerous countries worldwide due to its religious parody. Besides its humor, The Book of Clarence shares more philosophical ground with Passion of the Christ, highlighting Jesus (albeit with sass) as the lord and savior and presenting an unflinching portrayal of crucifixion’s brutality.

Samuels should be commended for his audacity in incorporating elements of the world’s horrors and intertwining them with joy. The Book of Clarence manages to offer a surprising level of cohesiveness despite preceding a lynching with a dance number. Nevertheless, the film remains perplexing as a whole. It’s possible that there are millions of movie enthusiasts who appreciate religious teachings combined with racial commentary and served with a generous dose of slapstick comedy. Samuels clearly believes these individuals exist, but as Clarence aptly tells Thomas, “I believe in life itself. You pray to a man no one has ever met.”