The Book of Clarence

When a weed dealer in 33 A.D. (LaKeith Stanfield) loses a chariot race to Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor, "A Thousand and One"), the losses increase his debt with local pimp Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), whose sister (Anna Diop, "Nanny") happens to be the love of his life.  With death staring down he and best buddy Elijah (Stanfield’s "The Harder They Fall" costar, RJ Cyler), he decides to raise money by staging miracles as the New Messiah in “The Book of Clarence.”

Laura's Review: C

At the screening I attended, the movie was preceded by a direct camera address from writer/director/composer Jeymes Samuel ("The Harder They Fall") describing his love of old biblical epics and stating that dreams are in reality attainable goals.  How this relates to his latest black take on a Hollywood genre still has me mystified, as Clarence’s only dream appears to be winning the hand of Jedediah’s sister and although he eventually does that, he learns of his success from behind bars awaiting his crucifixion.

Anyone going into this expecting the black version of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” will be disappointed.  Samuel essentially lifts black exploitation tropes and plunks them down in a parallel world with Jesus, here a black man (Nicholas Pinnock, TV's 'For Life') with Clarence’s twin Thomas (also Stanfield), who has left Clarence to care for their mother (a luminous Marianne Jean-Baptiste, "Secrets & Lies"), as one of his apostles.  Clarence doesn’t believe, but after scamming the poor out of enough silver coins to pay back Jedediah, has a sudden change of heart and uses the money to free twenty slaves instead.  This good deed is enough to make God smile upon him, enabling him to walk on water when Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) demands he do so, Clarence having been picked up in a Messiah sweep by the Romans, but upon seeing the miracle, Pontius Pilate concludes that now the only thing he can do is crucify him, leading Samuel into a fairly straight recreation of the twelve stations of the cross with Clarence as Jesus waits for Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward, "Empire of Light") to betray him.  Are you laughing yet?

One could try and dig beneath all this to find the obvious redemption story, but the film is simply overstuffed with ideas that fail to connect strung together with a romance we never become invested in.  This is no fault of the cast’s, Stanfield and Cyler a delightful buddy pairing, with “The Untouchables’” Omar Sy a big plus as the very charismatic and ‘immortal’ Barrabus bedeviled by a short, blonde Roman Centurion (Oliver Price) and his spear.  David Oyelowo creates a humorously intolerant John the Baptist while Alfre Woodard has some fun explaining her virginal status as Jesus’ mother to the dubious Clarence.  But the film’s biggest laughs are achieved by two Brits in small roles, McAvoy eliciting chuckles with Pilate’s imperious justice and a beggar’s layers of grime scrubbed away to reveal Benedict Cumberbatch looking just like the white world’s depiction of Jesus.

“The Book of Clarence” is a misguided attempt to find comedy in all the wrong places while failing to build structure from its genuinely good ideas.

Sony Pictures releases "The Book of Clarence" in theaters on 1/12/24.