What to Watch This Weekend – The Book of Clarence

The Book of Clarence is a familiar story of faith told from a new perspective. In Jerusalem around 33 AD, Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) has ambition. He dreams of making enough money to cancel out his debt and move his sickly mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to new accommodations. If possible, he’d also like to prove to Varinia (Anna Diop) that he’s not a nobody. It doesn’t help that Clarence is overshadowed by his twin brother Thomas (also Stanfield). Thomas follows Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) as one of his twelve apostles, while Clarence regards this self-proclaimed messiah as nothing but a huckster. Nevertheless, Clarence formulates an idea—if he can convince people that he’s a new kind of savior, he may be able to rake in the shekels needed to afford the better life he’s always wanted.

What works in The Book of Clarence is the incredible creative balance between lore and a playful reimagining of events. Writer/director Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) finds fresh ways to examine the events surrounding the Passion of the Christ that explores new perspectives. The filmmakers’ decision to sprinkle contemporary elements into the proceedings only increases engagement with the material. For example, Clarence represents doubters and skeptics from a modern sensibility—often questioning Jesus the way one would with some historical distance. His arguments echo ones prevalent in today’s culture. In addition, Samuel layers in music and language from the common era, which both lightens and contextualizes some of the heavier moments and themes. Even with these licenses, Samuel is very respectful to the core theological tenets. This results in a film that is a mix of entertaining and thought-provoking.

Individuals who feel that deviations from established doctrines of faith are sacrilegious, blasphemous, or simply disrespectful may not enjoy The Book of Clarence as much as others. Samuel takes well known stories and spins them in new ways. Most often the messages remain wholly intact, but Samuel takes some intentionally huge liberties with the details. Most of these revolve around Clarence or his compatriots becoming directly involved with, or having parallels to, moments from Jesus’ life. In addition, Samuel uses some interactions as an allegory for modern race relations. For example, the Roman soldiers represent a form of racist law enforcement who enact their will with extreme prejudice. This interpretive narrative may unsettle some viewers.

The Book of Clarence is a fascinating experiment in religious revisionist history with a comedic spin. Combining such ingredients—serious biblical moments with farce and levity—does result in an occasionally uneven experience. However, Samuel should be lauded for his ingenuity, ambition, and courage for crafting a film that will likely percolate with viewers long after the credits roll.

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