The Book of Clarence
Legendary Entertainment, 2024
📷 : Pixabay
Movies and TV shows that make you laugh, or involve urgency, like chase scenes or other physical activity
Nonfamily dramas with strong adult and/or socioeconomic themes
Full confession: I have a Catholic education up to and through high school. As theology was always a priority, I have seen my fair share of “Bible story” movies, in the days of grainy VCR playback with tracking lines going across the TV. Some were compelling and some were very tedious, but the message was consistently sent to take the depictions very seriously. If you told me then I would be watching Jeymes Samuel’s parody of such epics, I probably…well, I would’ve said that far in the future, I could be doing anything. Nonetheless, The Book of Clarence may ruffle some feathers, but it does provide a little bit of a trip down memory lane and a fair share of chuckles along the way.
Clarence, played by the mercurial LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You), finds himself in a hole after losing a chariot race and totaling the vehicle…that is, someone else’s vehicle. After facing the threat of death if he does not repay Jedidiah (Eric Kofi Abrefa, Fury), Clarence, along with his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler, White Boy Rick) must brainstorm a plan to raise the money. After being laughed out of the room for trying to become the 13th apostle, Clarence decides to play himself up as a second Messiah, performing “miracles” with the help of his close friends who fake being blind, deaf and paralyzed for several audiences. However, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you know that the “powers that were” did not take kindly to anyone calling themselves the Messiah. Even as he continues to raise money, Clarence must face the scorn and potentially fatal punishment of the authorities.
Biblical epics are known to be very serious works, with much of the dialogue pulled verbatim from scriptures. The reasoning for this is fairly simple and obvious: devout members of the Christian faith do not usually take kindly to anything other than the most literal interpretations of the stories in the Bible. Given this context, a film that appears to be poking fun at much of the New Testament is likely to produce a few scowls and some contempt. Clarence himself, at the beginning of the film, does not buy much of what is now scripture, even questioning the Virgin Mary’s (played by Alfre Woodard) story in person. Multiple times, he says, “Oh, okay, so you really believe this.” The notion of a biblical epic starring an atheist is rather humorous on its face, and hijinks ensue due to Clarence’s contempt for the beliefs of others, including his twin brother Thomas, one of the 12 apostles.
The Book of Clarence achieves much of its humor from infusing current lingo and behavior into an ancient time period. In one scene, Clarence sucker punches a man getting ready to fight him. When the man says, “You hit me unprovoked,” Clarence shrugs and says, “Hey, look alive.” The film borrows several modern-day phrases, contrasting heavily with the Old English typically uttered in Bible stories. Additionally, the music blends the sounds of traditional hymns with a more modern R&B/Soul taste, using artists such as Kid Cudi, Jorja Smith and D’Angelo. Visually, the costuming and scenery is very much on point for a biblical epic. The one glaring difference is the actors: they’re predominantly black, pretty much unheard of in this genre of movie despite its historical accuracy. The key to all of the movie’s experimentation is the splendid cast, which consists of supporting roles filled by Teyana Taylor, David Oyelowo, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Benedict Cumberbatch and James McAvoy.
Despite the movie’s humorous and at times mocking tone, The Book of Clarence takes a rather drastic turn for the serious in its last 20 minutes. It may be a head-scratcher and even a letdown to viewers who enjoyed the comedic stylings, as it strays so far from the vibe that it spent more than 90 minutes creating. One theory could be that this shift is meant to appease more devoutly religious attendees, who do not get much satisfaction out of seeing their faith be a punchline. If true, a fair counterpoint is that they are surely already pissed off if they attended at all, and there is no point in compromising your ending to appease them. Nonetheless, you may fall anywhere on the spectrum of enjoying the majority of the film, nodding in approval at its resolution, or appreciating it as a whole (or just hating it I guess).
The most obvious comparison for Jeymes Samuel’s second feature (his first was The Harder They Fall, also starring Stanfield) is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the acclaimed 1979 British satire. I will throw in two slightly more recent films of the 1990s, Friday and Baby Boy. Both films had protagonists who, while charismatic, were hard-headed and could not get out of their own way at times. Like Craig (Ice Cube) and Jody (Tyrese Gibson), Clarence finds himself in a world of trouble simply because he refuses to shed his adolescent ways, even at the behest of his love interest. All three protagonists had fiercely loyal best friends and parents who simply wanted them to mature. The Book of Clarence may seem unfocused at times, but it certainly provides a familiar backdrop with a creative twist.