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Movie Review: ‘The Book of Clarence’


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Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), Barabbas (Omar Sy) and Elijah (R.J. Cyler) in 'The Book of Clarence.'

(L to R) Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), Barabbas (Omar Sy) and Elijah (R.J. Cyler) in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo: Moris Puccio. © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.

The new biblical epic ‘The Book of Clarence,’ which was written by Jeymes Samuel (‘The Harder They Fall’) and stars LaKeith Stanfield (‘Knives Out’), opens in theaters on January 12th.

Initial Thoughts

Coming off the success of the fantastic ‘The Harder They Fall,’ director Jeymes Samuel’s has crafted another epic and entertaining movie, which boasts commanding performances from LaKeith Stanfield and Anna Diop. While the film will no doubt spark controversy in the fundamental bible community for its depiction of the “historical Jesus” versus the “real Jesus,” the filmmaker’s original vision and execution is hypnotic for those religiously openminded and results in a fun and though-provoking theatrical experience.

Script and Direction

Jeymes Samuel attends a Special Screening of 'The Book of Clarence' at Pacific Design Center on December 11, 2023 in West Hollywood, California.

Jeymes Samuel attends a Special Screening of ‘The Book of Clarence’ at Pacific Design Center on December 11, 2023 in West Hollywood, California. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sony Pictures.

‘The Book of Clarence’ is a reimagining of the biblical story of Jesus. We are first introduced to Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a hustler living in A.D. 33 Jerusalem whose identical twin brother is Thomas (also played by Stanfield), who is one of the twelve apostles. Down on his luck, and owing money to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), Clarence believes if he can become an apostle, Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) can protect him from Jedediah. But when Clarence is denied membership in the apostles because of his lack of faith in Jesus, he decides to create his own following and along with his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler), claims to be the Messiah himself.

This soon draws the attention of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), who will execute anyone claiming to be the Messiah, which also includes a homeless man (Benedict Cumberbatch) with mysterious powers. Also complicating Clarence’s problems is his love for Varinia (Anna Diop), who is the sister of Jedediah. What the film, and director Jeymes Samuel does well is tell us a familiar story from a new point of view. Even though we all know the story of Jesus, we’ve never seen it like this before and that leads to exciting and innovative storytelling.

In my opinion, Samuel had a fantastic directorial debut with ‘The Harder They Fall,’ which was an exciting and entertaining Western. With ‘Clarence,’ Samuel firmly establishes himself as a fresh and competent filmmaker and crafts an epic version of the biblical story. The director has gone on the record saying that he grew up loving classic biblical movies like ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘The Ten Commandments,’ and his inspiration from those movies is apparent in every scene of ‘Clarence.’

But what is most important is that Samuel has injected the movie with his own personal point-of-view, which is what makes the movie really pop. The use of modern music, fantastic action sequences and a great cast certainly helps, but make no mistakes, Samuel is an auteur director not unlike Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson. While some audience members own religious views may be at odds with the ideas of the film, the originality and strength of Samuel’s screenplay cannot be denied.

Performances

Elijah (R.J. Cyler) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in 'The Book of Clarence.'

(L to R) Elijah (R.J. Cyler) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo: Moris Puccio. © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.

LaKeith Stanfield is one the finest actors we have working today and is best known for his supporting work in movies like ‘Get Out,’ ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Uncut Gems,’ and ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ for which he earned a Best Supporting Oscar nomination. But ‘Clarence’ really marks the actor’s first major starring role, and Stanfield is mesmerizing as both the title role and his brother Thomas. The actor gives not one but two commanding performances, which at times are as comedic as they are emotional and dramatic.

Also excellent in their comedic roles are RJ Cyler as Clarence’s loyal friend, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Benjamin, who eerily looks like the historical representation of Jesus. Alfre Woodard, who plays Mother Mary, and David Oyelowo, who plays John the Baptist, both have fun comedic turns as well. But what really grounds the movie and some of its new ideas about the classic bible story is the romance between Clarence and Varinia, thanks to a lovely performance from Anna Diop. The actress is probably best known for her role as Starfire on Max’s ‘Titans,’ but based on this performance should be appearing in more big screen films very soon.

Unfortunately, the one performance that doesn’t quite work belongs to James McAvoy and his role as Pontius Pilate. McAvoy is a fine actor, but the character is never really fleshed out and ultimately just becomes a generic advisory.

Related Article: LaKeith Stanfield and Director Jeymes Samuel Talk ‘The Book of Clarence’

Why Some Audiences May Have an Issue with ‘The Book of Clarence’

Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in 'The Book of Clarence.'

(L to R) Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo: Moris Puccio. © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.

For many, the reimagining of the bible is a taboo subject, and especially in America, people take their Jesus very seriously. We’ve seen many retellings of Jesus’ story met with criticism and controversy over the years such as Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ or Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ and I fear the same may happen to ‘The Book of Clarence.’

While I personally have no problem with the idea of a black Jesus, (let’s be honest, if he did exist, he most likely was not white), I’m afraid many people will. Which is another reason I’m so impressed with Samuel’s bold take on the biblical story, it’s a big risk for an up-and-coming filmmaker to make with his sophomore movie.

But another issue some may have, which again I didn’t, is the depiction of the long haired and bearded version of Jesus that many people believe in. Played by Cumberbatch, he is nothing but a false profit, a homeless man who is touched by the “real Jesus,” granting him powers he does not understand. The film reveals Clarence to be the true Jesus talked about in the bible, and Cumberbatch’s character is just the physical representation that history recorded. This is a fascinating idea to explore, which Samuel’s does exceedingly well, but again, it could be very controversial for many religious audience members.

Final Thoughts

Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and Varinia (Anna Diop) in 'The Book of Clarence.'

(L to R) Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and Varinia (Anna Diop) in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo: Moris Puccio. © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Controversies aside, ‘The Book of Clarence’ is an extremely original, fresh, bold, and exciting reimaging of the story of Jesus. Director Jeymes Samuel firmly establishes himself as one of the most innovative and exciting directors working today, while LaKeith Stanfield giving a commanding lead performance.

‘The Book of Clarence’ receives 8.5 out of 10 stars.

“How far would you go to prove you’re not a nobody?”

PG-132 hr 15 minJan 12th, 2024

Showtimes & Tickets

Struggling to find a better life, Clarence is captivated by the power of the rising Messiah and soon risks everything to carve a path to a divine existence. Read the Plot

What is the plot of ‘The Book of Clarence’?

A struggling down-on-his-luck man named Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) living in 29 A.D. Jerusalem looks to capitalize on the rise of Jesus Christ (Babs Olusanmokun) by claiming to be a new Messiah sent by God, in an attempt to free himself of debt and start a life of glory for himself.

Who is in the cast of ‘The Book of Clarence’?

Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) in 'The Book of Clarence.'

Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) in ‘The Book of Clarence.’ Photo: Moris Puccio. © 2023 Legendary Entertainment. All rights reserved.

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