• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, October 14, 2023

    Review: The Book of Clarence (2024)

    The Book of Clarence premiered on Wednesday at the London Film Festival, so while it won't be on general release until January I paid to see it at the festival yesterday and there was even a brief introduction by director Jeymes Samuel beforehand.

    Samuel is best known for his 2022 western The Harder They Fall which told a fictional story based on real life Black characters from the wild west.1 This time around the approach is slightly different. The Jewish characters in the story, including minor roles for Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Jesus' parents are Black.2 The Romans are white.

    Moreover the intention was slightly different too. Whereas with The Harder They Fall, the aim was to create a new story to bring together real historical characters, here he was more focused on capturing the essence of the majority Black areas of London he grew up in.  "I wanted to tell a story around that environment but translate it back 2000 years".3 It's a subtle, but significant difference. This is the 'world' that the real life characters (including Jesus) are inserted into. The film is not intending to recreate historical reality.

    The Book of Clarence and the biblical epics
    Just as important to note is the change in tone and genre. On one level the earlier film was a more serious dramatic film, albeit with occasional moments of humour. However, Clarence is more of a comedy drama. It's not an out and out comedy like Monty Python's Life of Brian (a film to which it be forever compared, nevertheless), but the tone is lighter, zany and more comic.

    Genre-wise Samuel the film is an assured move from one popular 1950s Hollywood genre – the western – to another, the biblical epic.That this is firmly the territory that Samuel (also known as The Bullits) has entered into is clear from the opening 30 seconds which tips the hat to an array of biblical epics in quick succession. The opening shot starts with not three crosses as in most Jesus films, but a sea of them as in Spartacus (1960) and Life of Brian. Then the credits begin Quo Vadis?/The Robe style with gold 3D lettering on richly coloured, cloth-texture background. Then as we cut back to Jerusalem a subtitle tells us, Python-style, the time and place with unusual precision. Moments later we're witnessing a chariot race through the streets that not only evokes The Prince of Egypt (1998) and the 1959 Ben-Hur but the 2016 version too (though that may not be so deliberate). It's so purposefully and precisely executed that it makes the Coen Bros. Hail Caesar! (2016) look like the work of fake fans. The tips of the hat continue as the film progresses. There are two references to The Passion of the Christ late on in the film one of which is hilarious and audacious, the other of which is understated and bold.

    The other aspect of the film which will stand out to Bible film aficionados is its extensive use of Matera in Italy. This was the historic site which Pasolini used for his Jesus film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) which at the time was neglected and underappreciated, now an UNESCO heritage site and popular location for biblical movies. King David (1985), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Mary Magdalene (2018) are just a few of the films that were shot there. Here, though, it appears that barring the occasional interior, the entire film was shot in Matera. This gives a far greater feel for the city itself, it's layout and stunning surrounding geography and that gives a sense of continuity to the film itself. It captures the isolated nature of the story itself. A community translated back 2000 years.

    One further way that the film recalls the biblical epics is the way it shifts the action so that Jesus is not the centre of attention but rather a fringe, and in this case fictional, character. Here that character is Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), whose twin Thomas (also  has already left their ageing mother to follow Jesus. Clarence is hardly a pious moralist, but he's annoyed by this. Now he has to provide for her on his own and having resorted to increasingly desperate measures to find income, including racing chariots against Mary Magdalene, he now finds himself in debt to local boss Jedediah. 

    Faking miracles
    Sensing safety in numbers he tries to join Jesus' followers, but finds his followers unwelcoming, even after freeing the gladiator / slave Barabbas (Lupin's Omar Sy). So he hits on the idea of forming his own mass movement. Believing Jesus to be a fraud, who fakes his miracles, Clarence decides to do likewise. It's not long before his phoney miracles (using his friends as stooges) and his slickly-rehearsed sermons are starting to pay off.

    Much of the discussion about Clarence has been around whether the film disrespects Jesus, not unlike the controversy around Life of Brian 44 years ago. This time around, it's even more clear here that Clarence is not Jesus. The two appear at numerous points in the film and even speak to one another on a few occasions. It also becomes clear that despite his unwelcoming and posturing disciples and Clarence's initial low opinion of him, Jesus does have the power to perform genuine miracles. That might be true of the Jesus of Brian as well but here it's far more clear and explicit than just the claims of an "ex-leper".

    Yet this is hardly a conventional portrayal. It's a quirky comic-drama with fantasy elements such as light bulbs appearing above Clarence's head when he has an idea and various characters floating when they puff on a hookah. The miracles of Jesus we do see are significantly differently to how they happen in the Bible. [Spoilers - select text to read] One happens when a woman, is being stoned and Jesus stops the rocks in mid-air, with a healthy nod to the Matrix. Another, which is shown somewhat misleadingly in the trailer sees him enable Clarence to walk on water. [End of spoilers]. Nevertheless it's clear that Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) is not a fake messiah, he's the real deal, preaching an important message and walking the walk. He even stands up to the Romans.

    Jesus' parents
    While still hoping to learn how Jesus is faking his miracles Clarence visits Jesus parents, making this one of the few films that show both Mary and Joseph at the end of his life. Interestingly one of the few other films to do this is another Black Jesus film, Color of the Cross (2006). This is perhaps my favourite scene in the film. Alfre Woodard's portrayal of Mary is possibly my favourite of Jesus' mother, certainly once her son has become an adult. It's sympathetic, warm and wise, while also capturing a credible mother-adult son dynamic that few takes on Mary and Jesus seem to manage. She loves him, and so lets him lead his life without feeling encroaching too far into his work.

    Joseph's role (Brian Bovell) plays against that of Mary, interjecting every so often with a cutting contempt for Clarence and his cronies contrasting Mary's compassionate outlook. He gets the film's best lines: "If you were a tool in my carpenter's box, you wouldn't be the sharpest" he sighs as Clarence struggles to grasp that their son is not faking. They even tell him the story (found in both the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Qu'ran) of Jesus making a clay bird come alive.

    Turning it around
    All of this forms a key part of Samuel's journey to becoming a better person. Yet it's certainly not just Jesus and his parents who push him in this direction. Clarence is also besotted by Jedediah's sister Varinia, who, disliking Clarence's scheme, urges him towards living a more selfless life. As Peter Chattaway has pointed out, in the 1960s version of Spartacus, Varinia is the name of Jean Simmons character.4 It's perhaps not surprising, then, that soon Clarence finds himself using his ill-gotten wealth not to save his own hide, but to buy freedom for all the other gladiator-slaves. 

    Sadly, it's just as Clarence decides to come clean. This does raise a few questions which the film rather skips over. While buying back the slaves is a good and selfless act, that might not be how those he  tricked into giving him their money see it. Secondly gang boss, Jedediah has a remarkably low key change of heart, but then that is perhaps due to the fact that just as Clarence is about to confess that he's not the messiah (just a very naughty boy), then Romans begin tracking down the city's various messiahs.

    Questions of race
    For all the film's humour it nevertheless wants to take on more serious issues too around race, religion and society. As noted above there's a clear dividing line between the Black Jews and the White Romans. Firstly this reinforces, more clearly than any other film, the fact that the Romans and the Jews were different races and both viewed the other as inferior (though this was not primarily about race as such). Part of the reason for this clarity is the almost complete lack of priests, Pharisees, teachers of the law etc. There's a brief tracking shot of a party of (Black) men dressed similarly to Pharisees and priests in other Jesus films, but that's it. It's the Romans that are hunting down messiahs and who execute Clarence and while Jesus' death is still three days in the future, there's not even a shadow of a doubt it will be down to Roman initiative. And given the genre's tendency towards reinforcing antisemitic tropes of the past blaming the Jews for Jesus' death, it's very welcome to see a film steer clear of that so deftly.

    Secondly, before that final part of the film we've already witnessed how patrols of Roman soldiers casually interrogate Clarence and his friends, and indeed Jesus, on the flimsiest of premises. Biblical epics have always been as much about the present as about the past and it's easy to draw parallels between these scenes and the numerous videos of White police officers harassing Black people on the similarly flimsy grounds. 

    The only real exception to the Black Jews / White Romans racial divide is Benedict Cumberbatch's minor role playing someone homeless. There's an extreme close-up of Cumberbatch shortly after the credits clad in grime so thick it's impossible to tell if this is just dirt, or meant to represent some critique of black-face performances. Cumberbatch role stays around the peripheries until [Spoilers - select text to read it] Clarence gives him the money to get a proper wash. When he emerges the salon staff put him in a white robe and now his hair is unmatted and his skin clean and white suddenly we, and the salon staff realise he now looks like Jesus. Suddenly everyone forgets that Jesus walks among them and starts bowing and praising this White saviour. This seems like a bit of a dig about how we have so readily accepted a fake White Jesus (even though we know that is historically inaccurate) even though we know the real Jesus was a person of colour.

    This becomes particularly interesting during the latter stages of the crucifixion where Samuel repeats a long shot from Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, taken behind the cross with Matera in the background. While it's Clarence, not Jesus that's the focus of this shot, nevertheless it feels like it's echoing to Black members of the audience the experience White people had watching The Passion. Meanwhile to White people its a reminder that Black people matter just as much and stand shoulder to shoulder in contexts such as this.[End of spoilers]

    The Book of Samuel
    This is undoubtedly a film that White and Black people will view differently. It's also a film that will resonate differently for those with some kind of faith and those without it. While there are some cursory similarities with Life of Brian, they are two quite different films. In Brian, the humour became more pointed as the film wore on. Here it's almost the opposite. Clarence ends on a more positive note, one that recognises the possibility and importance of change and self-sacrifice. And it does this without being overly saccharin or giving simplistic answers, not least the ambiguity of the final scene which will fuel discussions after the credits have rolled. 

    It's incredibly difficult to do anything in this genre that feels genuinely innovative. Yet The Book of Clarence does that. Not for its use of a Black Jesus surrounded by Black followers, films such as Color of the Cross and Jezile (both 2006) and the TV series Black Jesus (2014-9) have already done that, but as much for its social critique and the way its humour is not generated solely by cynicism. It's not perfect, by any means. Some gags don't quite land and some will struggle with the changes in tone, but nevertheless it's well worth watching, even for those who dislike traditional biblical epics. And for fans of biblical movies or of Samuel's work, it's a must see.

    Indeed, this is clearly a hugely personal film for Samuel. The musician turned director has been mulling this film over since 2003/04 and it shows. My hunch is that in a few years time when he has a string of movies behind him, this will be the one that his fans come back to as best encapsulating his themes and outlook.

    1 - Kelley, Sonaiya (2022) "How ‘The Harder They Fall’ corrects Hollywood’s historical record of Black cowboys", Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3. Available online – https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-11-03/harder-they-fall-netflix-jeymes-samuel 

    2 - There's one notable exception , but it comes I won't spoil the 

    3 - Quote from pre-screening introduction by Jeymes Samuel at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, 12th October 2023. Words transcribed by me at the time without the chance to play them back so may contain minor errors. I believe Samuel may have misspoke and said 3000 years rather than 2000 years, but as I wasn't certain that was exactly what he said and so as it was clearly his intention I have put 2000 above.

    4 - I was reminded of this connection by Peter Chattaway in this post on his Substack – https://petertchattaway.substack.com/p/the-book-of-clarence-the-world-premiere



    Post a Comment

    << Home