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17 April 2024

The Book of Clarence is a bombastic biblical satire

Jeymes Samuel’s comedy is both a playful riff on the religious epic and a witty homage to sword-and-sandals films.

By Simran Hans

The year is AD 33 and in Jerusalem, LaKeith Stanfield’s Clarence can’t help but notice that people keep throwing money at a guy named Jesus. “You ever see Jesus buy a pair of sandals?” he asks with a raised eyebrow. Clarence decides he’d quite fancy being a messiah too, or at least one of his apostles, in Jeymes Samuel’s playful riff on the biblical epic.

The ancient city where Samuel stages the Bible-adjacent story is filled with cheerily anachronistic flourishes, including a shisha bar whose patrons get so high they float. It’s also amusing that the film shares a shooting location – Matera, Italy – with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, another Hollywood example of the genre. Rapper Jay-Z is a producer, and it features original songs composed by Samuel, the London-born musician-turned-director (and younger brother of Seal) who previously made music as the Bullitts. The Book of Clarence, however, is not a musical: it aspires towards something grander than Jesus Christ Superstar.

Samuel’s previous film, 2021’s The Harder They Fall, was a bombastic and cine-literate neo-Western with a predominantly black cast, released on Netflix. Here, he adopts a similar attitude on a more cinematic scale, opening with a fast and furious chariot race between Clarence and Mary Magdalene – a homage to the sword-and-sandals classic Ben-Hur.

Clarence, a seller of stolen goods and “ungodly herbs”, as one character puts it, was hoping to settle a debt to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi Abrefa). Instead, he manages to lose the race, and after being mugged, all his money. His dream is to get his mum a new place, and to win the affections of Jedediah’s sister Varinia (Anna Diop), and so he devises a get-rich-quick scheme with his bumbling best friend, Elijah (RJ Cyler, the Donkey to Stanfield’s Shrek). Never mind that Clarence is a staunch atheist who’s convinced that “knowledge is stronger than faith”. He decides to get baptised and become the 13th apostle, sweeping up Jesus’s loose change. David Oyelowo’s John the Baptist, however, is having none of it.

The casting is witty: Oyelowo also played Martin Luther King Jr in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, while Mary Magdalene, an infamous “fallen woman”, is portrayed by the former model and music-video “vixen” Teyana Taylor (who was wonderful in 2023’s A Thousand and One). Elder stateswoman Marianne Jean-Baptiste has a small role as Clarence’s mother, and late on in the film Benedict Cumberbatch appears too, in a cameo too delicious to reveal the details of here.

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Stanfield, who also starred in The Harder They Fall, can do soulful as well as stoner, moving gracefully between the two as Clarence. A hooded robe that hangs off his lanky frame gives the actor a dishevelled, underdog look, while his smudgy, kohl-rimmed eyes hint at a deeper spiritual quest. Still, Stanfield seems to be having fun – especially as Clarence’s pious twin brother, Thomas, who hangs out with Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) and affects a dry British accent.

When Clarence is tasked with defeating the invincible enslaved gladiator Barabbas (Omar Sy) in a fight, he ends up winning a new friend instead. Freed from his captor, Barabbas is Clarence’s new back-up, and along with Elijah, aids him in performing a series of “miracles”. The coins pile up. On their tail are the racist Romans who police Jerusalem and racially profile its people: one holds up a sketch of a pharaoh in a nemes headdress, insisting they’re looking for “the Messiah”. The film is definitely a comedy, and a lot of the jokes work. But the three chapters or “books” that Samuel divides the film into aren’t evenly weighted. While the first two acts zip by, buoyed by comic set pieces, the third, which centres on Clarence’s redemption, drags.

In a speech delivered by Jedediah, Samuel makes the case for belief as a form of resistance, and a source of legitimate joy, undercutting the religious satire he’s spent the past 90 minutes constructing.

“The Book of Clarence” is in cinemas now

[See also: Alex Garland’s Civil War is his sharpest, most brutal dystopia]

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This article appears in the 17 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran