Review: ‘The Book Of Clarence’

LaKeith Stanfield Is A Phony Messiah In Jeymes Samuel's Funny But Uneven Biblical Farce

With his electric directorial debut, The Harder They Fall, musician and filmmaker Jeymes Samuel delivered one of the most entertaining Westerns in recent memory. A mix of deft humor, exaggerated takes on real-life historical figures, and over-the-top action featuring a nearly all-Black cast, the film instantly put Samuel on the map. And now his anticipated follow-up, The Book of Clarence, is here and it follows the same trajectory except in the form of a Biblical epic. Both riotously funny and preachy, it’s a film that too often gets in its own way but still is worth filling up the pews for.

LaKeith Stanfield stars as Clarence, a small-time hustler who we first meet while in a dangerous chariot race with Mary Magdalene, played by A Thousand and One breakout Teyana Taylor. That should tell you all you need to know about the way these Biblical figures will be handled. Clarence has gambled everything on this, so when he loses, it puts him in debt to the local crimelord, Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who wants his money by the end of the month. Along with his loyal sidekick Elijah (RJ Cyler), Clarence starts his scheming to earn some quick cash.

It sounds like a plot from a contemporary crime comedy, which is part of the joy of The Book of Clarence. The story and its themes are current, and thus relevant to people whether they have ever read the Good Book or not. Clarence’s story parallels the rise of Jesus Christ (Nicholas Pinnock), and, being the petty conman that he is, Clarence sees this as an opportunity. Not for revelation, mind you, but for grift. So Clarence tries unsuccessfully to become Jesus’ 13th apostle, joining his pious brother Thomas as part of the flock. When that fails in humiliating fashion, Clarence decides to turn himself into a messiah, scamming the locals with fake miracles so they’ll fill his collection plate.

The Book of Clarence is at its best with a satirical edge. Clarence has a tremendously funny encounter with Mother Mary (Alfre Woodard) in which he debates her supposed virginity, questions Jesus’ messianic credentials, and ignores poor Joseph hiding in the corner. While the people who know Clarence best see through his ruse, others begin to put their faith in him, and he wants to try and live up to their high expectations.

Samuel hits on just the right balance of Life of Brian meets Friday, blending lowbrow buddy humor with witty insights. Clarence and Elijah get high and literally float into the sky, only to head to a nearby nightclub for a dance battle. Meanwhile, a stellar cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch finds the British actor as a dirty, unshaven beggar who is mistaken for Jesus. Of course, hilarity ensues, with Samuel teasing a white Jesus ascension.

Problems arise in the final act as The Book of Clarence gets overly serious, grim, and sanctimonious. The shift in tone is a head-snapper and doesn’t serve the film well at all. If Samuel’s goal was to sneakily drop a Sunday School class on audiences, he was doing an effective job using humor to spread the good word.

The Book of Clarence opens in theaters on January 12th.