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The Book of Clarence ★★★★



Director: Jeymes Samuel

Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler, Omar Sy, Teyana Taylor, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Pinnock, Babs Olusanmokun, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Anna Diop, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Caleb McLaughlin, Chase Dillon, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, James McAvoy & Benedict Cumberbatch

Release: London Film Festival 2023

You know writer/director Jeymes Samuel cooked up something special when you hear The Jackson Sisters’ “Do You Believe in Miracles?” Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), proudly professing he is the next Messiah, performs his “miracles”. He cures his best friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) of blindness and raises him from the dead. And if you need to be cured of any ailments, then sorry – the Lord can only commit to one miracle a day!

From the opening paragraph alone, an unsuspecting audience would think this was a satirical modern update to Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Clarence is not the Messiah, he’s just a naughty boy! But Jeymes Samuel’s follow-up to The Harder They Fall is much more involved than that. The Book of Clarence encompasses everything we’ve come to know about Samuel’s directorial artistry – audacious, bold and positively hilarious, with Blackness at its core. And even when it takes the wildest swings – especially in the third act – Samuel is never afraid of taking new steps when subverting our expectations.

If you’re ever been to a Black church, a lot of what Samuel incorporates resonates deeply. David Oyelowo has the time of his life playing John the Baptist, channelling the energy of the character of many Black pastors we’ve encountered through life. But where Samuel’s sophomore effort blazes a field of its own is its recontextualisation of Blackness through religion (in the same way The Harder They Fall recontextualises the Wild West through a Black lens). It taps into a long-standing belief within the Black community that Jesus was indeed a Black man who subsequently was whitewashed out of history for an “acceptable” image of Godliness through white eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised if Samuel acknowledged the rejected bible chapters and gospels from the King James Bible, removed for heresy for not following “the canon”. In all things considered, The Book of Clarence could be regarded as one of those missing/lost/rejected bible chapters by the Catholic Church, brought to the surface for a cinematic audience. At the heart of it is the story and examination of belief and does so through Clarence, a “nobody” wanting to become a “somebody” yet doesn’t believe in God or the man of the moment, Jesus Christ.

Riffing (and remixing) off classic films such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, Spartacus and The Ten Commandments, we’re introduced to Clarence through a chariot race. Alongside Elijah, they ‘Ben-Hur’ through the streets with Mary Magdalene (a fearless Teyana Taylor) until they’re thwarted by the Gypsy territory gang (led by Chase Dillon) and lose the race. With 30 days to pay off his debt to Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) and needing a quick solution (and protection), Clarence cons his way to wealth and success by pretending to be the next Messiah.

Samuel once again stamps his authority on this religious epic, injecting wicked one-liners and great character moments. One of the best belongs to Clarence visiting Mary, Mother of Jesus (Alfre Woodard), seeking answers to how her blessed son performs his “tricks” – to which Mary responds to the Immaculate Conception as someone who was “minding her own virgin business”.

But little moments like these add depth and richness to Samuel’s script, using it as a springboard to visually experiment with cinematic vignettes, split screens, trippy floating and ‘lightbulb’ ideas. Black Jesus is visually captured like a superhero, the very first Avenger, who stops those who “cast the first stone” like Neo stopping bullets in The Matrix Reloaded. But it’s also part of a larger narrative where Black lives are unapologetically explored. Black women getting their hair done. A dance sequence in a Jerusalem nightclub captures the energy of Black love and choreography. Samuel’s aptness for social commentary on oppression and marginalisation leads to a brilliant speech made by Jedediah about Black people being “unconquerable” amid injustice. And in building that trust, Samuel doesn’t re-traumatise Black audiences who understand that heavy-weight when it comes to violent acts by the Roman Empire.

But this film wouldn’t be possible without the standout performance by LaKeith. In playing a multilayered role (and characters), he builds empathy through a person who wants to be better – to provide for his mother (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and court the love of his life (played by Anna Diop). But the world says otherwise. Like a mirror image, this conflict borrows heavily from The Harder They Fall in examining brotherly relationships and the path that leads them to their destinies. But for LaKeith, it is another showcase of his talent and ability to find the heart and soul of a character he embodies. Cyler’s Elijah and Omar Sy’s Barabbas are not far behind him, who also deliver the comedic goods.

The film slightly loses momentum in the third act due to the ambitious swing it gives to Clarence’s journey. Furthermore, with a massive cast, not everyone gets their moment to shine. But at least it contains some genius moments, including a scene-stealing Benedict Cumberbatch.

Boasting a fantastic soundtrack and an incredible production design (taking advantage of filming on actual locations instead of digital backdrops), The Book of Clarence is an odyssey through love, faith and self-discovery in the only way Jeymes Samuel could ever do. That passion to be daring and different with that ‘go for broke’ attitude is interwoven onto the screen, and such aspiration is worth the heavenly praise.

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