In the time of Christ, reefer-smoking Clarence finds himself debt-ridden and shunned by the woman he loves. His brother, who is one of the Twelve Apostles, refuses to believe he can be a good man. To make things worse, if Clarence doesn’t repay his debt in 30 days, he’ll be sentenced to death! Seeing the followers of Jesus Christ and the respect he commands, Clarence hatches a scheme to become hailed as the new Messiah, but also finds himself conflicted through his newfound actions. Will Clarence continue down a path of debauchery and scams, or will he see the light of Jesus?
I’m as big a movie lover as there is. And some of my all-time favorite films are the Biblical epics from Hollywood’s bygone eras, including THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SPARTACUS, and BEN-HUR. THE BOOK OF CLARENCE attempts to be a loving homage to this era of filmmaking while also incorporating more comedic elements. The movie has many great ideas, though its messages and overall tone feel a bit jumbled. Is CLARENCE a masterpiece or a well-meaning misfire? The answer lies somewhere in between, though I enjoyed the film overall.
My love of Biblical epics is no secret. And the homage aspect of CLARENCE is one of its best aspects. The opening credits, dividing the film into “books,” and era setting and musical score certainly conjure up images of these old-time epics. You can tell the filmmakers, cast, and crew had an appreciation of this material and wanted to showcase this era, albeit from a different perspective. If CLARENCE excels in one area, it’s the movie’s production values. It looks and sounds amazing. Director Jeymes Samuel also performs several original songs for the soundtrack that further help it to stand a cut above the rest.
The film is also well cast, primarily using African-American actors for the lead roles while using Caucasian actors to depict the oppressive Romans. LaKeith Stanfield, a fantastic actor I don’t believe gets enough credit, portrays the title character (in addition to a secondary role as his twin brother who’s an Apostle of Christ). Seeing his performance as Clarence is a revelation, going from freeloading pothead to someone who genuinely wants to do good, makes for some entertaining viewing. The supporting cast members, including the likes of RJ Cyler, Benedict Cumberbatch, and James McAvoy, do a great job with what they’re given. But make no mistake; this is Stanfield’s film, and it’s the best performance of his career to date.
The problem with THE BOOK OF CLARENCE is the filmmakers weren’t quite sure if they wanted to make a comedy or a drama, and it ends up feeling like an uneven compromise on both ends. What other movie has scenes of characters lighting up and getting high in a comedic fashion, but also a crucifixion sequence that’s surprisingly faithful and emotional? I like the aspect of the film using its casting choices as a metaphor for Black oppression; my screening even had audience members standing up and cheering at some of the speeches given in the film, something I’ve not even seen in some more dramatic films tackling the subject. But this is the problem. There are too many silly, laugh-out-loud funny scenes for CLARENCE to be taken seriously as a Biblical epic, and there’s too much dramatic weight for it to be a comedy. Going for a PG-13 rating also somewhat holds the film back, meaning we don’t get the level of violence required for certain elements, nor do we truly get to cut loose with unrestricted unfiltered comedy when it would’ve been welcomed.
THE BOOK OF CLARENCE Is an uneven, inconsistent film, but there’s a lot to love about it, including a career-defining role from LaKeith Stanfield, an actor that doesn’t get talked about enough. Its production values are top notch, and it’s a long overdue Hollywood return to the world of Biblical times reminiscent of the big screen’s days of old. Despite the shortcomings, there’s certainly enough to like about this one to give it a modest recommendation.