Jeymes Samuels’ directorial debut, The Harder They Fall, was a grand slam that got him the 2021 BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. From his music to his writing and direction, I think it’s safe to say that Jeymes Samuels is a creative visionary. The extra incentive to see Samuels as a genius can be seen in the company he keeps, from legendary musicians to Oscar-nominated actors to boot.
I am incredibly excited that Jeymes Samuels delivers yet another hit with his biblical dramedy, The Book of Clarence. Samuels understands narrative, ambition and genre, which informs his interpretations of classic tropes and styles. The Harder They Fall is a dark, gory, Black spin on the Spaghetti Western. The Book of Clarence runs in the same vein by riding the line between satire and genuine biblical epic with the use of ‘real’ biblical characters and modern riffs on classic interpretations with plenty of humor baked in.
Broken into three parts or “books” as Samuels’ inspiration, The Ten Commandments, was, The Book of Clarence follows its title main character, Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), from lowly grifter and herb dealer to the “new Messiah” all in pursuit of being deemed worthy for the woman he loves, Varinia (Anna Diop). Most of the community surrounding Clarence writes him off as a man without purpose and honour, especially his twin brother Thomas the Apostle (LaKeith Stanfield).
I was baffled by how much I saw a difference in Stanfield’s performance and appearance between the two characters he played. I don’t know how it was pulled off, but I was at points convinced they were two different people—it was uncanny.
Clarence takes a few steps before tricking the masses into believing he is the new Messiah; he first is baptized by the one and only John (David Oyelowo) in the hope that his financier Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) would see his devotion and grant him leniency. This does not go the way Clarence has planned, so he takes his newfound devotion one step further and asks to become the 13th Apostle of Jesus. However, the Apostles, including Thomas, do not believe that Clarence has forgotten his doubts. Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward) proposes that Clarence release gladiator slaves in the name of Jesus to prove his devotion.
However, Clarence can only free one gladiator, Barabbas the Immortal (Omar Sy), which isn’t enough. Finally, Clarence concludes he must become the new Messiah and pay back his debts with the coin offerings from his speeches and miracles (tricks) with the help of his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler), Dirty Zeke (Caleb McLaughlin) and Barabbas, the Immortal.
The Book of Clarence is packed with biblical references and characters. We meet Virgin Mary (Alfre Woodard) and Joseph (Brian Bovell) when Clarence seeks them out to learn all of Jesus’s tricks. Like the rest of the film, this scene is humorous yet earnest as Alfre Woodard is steadfast that her son is the son of God. Clarence’s bestie Elijah is in love with Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) and stands in front of her as she is chained and stoned, which is the first time we see the face of Black Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock). Jeymes Samuels’ Jesus is genuinely magical; he stops the stones in their tracks and preaches to the crowd. Who are they to judge when none of them are sinless?
The third book of The Book of Clarence involves the conviction and crucifixion of Clarence, which is heartwrenching and magical. LaKeith Stanfield delivers immense character growth with Clarence, and we’re treated with how much his community is attached to him despite his deceptions. Most of the humour in this portion of the film comes from Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch), a once dirty homeless man who is gifted a coin by Jesus and, upon getting himself cleaned up, looks precisely like the Anglo-Saxon Jesus from white Christianity. The film’s final act has a switcheroo element that puts Clarence in the centre of the Bible’s story rather than on the sidelines like the rest of the film.
Throughout The Book of Clarence, I was drawn in by the incredible performances and epic storytelling. LaKeith Stanfield is incredible in his two roles as Clarence and Thomas. He has a knack for comedy and drama, and both serve the film well. Omar Sy is also one to watch in this film as the once enslaved man now sees his life indebted to Clarence for freeing him—Sy is sober next to RJ Cyler, whose performance leans more into wavering sidekick.
I don’t think that Caleb McLaughlin was used to his full potential in the role of Dirty Zeke; however, the cast of this film is so stacked with talent, and many play small roles due to the number of characters needed to flesh out Jerusalem and Jesus’s inner circle. That said, I also think that The Book of Clarence is the kind of film where one watch does not do the layered story justice. I missed plenty of jokes, cameos and easter eggs upon just one viewing.
Jeymes Samuels is a very clever writer and director. He uses themes and events from the Bible to tell the story of a far more relatable character with plenty of flaws but a heart of gold. Everything from set design to the costumes and magical realism elements plays into a fantastical epic. I’m not a religious person, certainly not Christian, but I found the motifs throughout the film to be far more grounded and achievable than any other exposure I’ve had to Christian media.
You can’t call The Book of Clarence a farce because I do not think that the heart of the film is making fun of biblical epics; I believe that Jeymes Samuels has moulded the genre to Black culture and self-awareness that confronts atheist logical cynicism to a humorous yet philosophical degree. I can’t wait to see what Jeymes Samuels creates next, but in the meantime, I’ll obsess over every minute of this film until I’m certain I’ve nailed down every reference and punchline.