The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

Jeymes Samuel follows up The Harder They Fall (2021) with a tone-switching swords-and-sandals stoner comedy starring LaKeith Stanfield as a false prophet.

16 April 2024

By Arjun Sajip

Lakeith Stanfield in The Book of Clarence (2023)
Sight and Sound

Halfway through writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s 2021 spaghetti western The Harder They Fall, there’s a seemingly throwaway bit of dialogue: Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler), who fancies himself as the fastest gun in the West, brags, “Like they say in the Book of Clarence, ‘Can’t no man outspeed me.’”

This slightly incongruous line was, it turns out, a carefully laid Easter egg for Samuel’s new film, The Book of Clarence, which transforms the director’s apocrypha into big-screen gospel. The Samuel Cinematic Universe seems to run on one basic rule: construct a time-honoured genre framework and populate it with an all-Black principal cast. But while The Harder They Fall was, structurally speaking, a largely conventional spaghetti western, The Book of Clarence takes an unruly approach to a decidedly unfashionable kind of film: the Biblical epic.

The movie announces its influences straight out of the gate – it borrows its embossed gold opening titles and its first action sequence, a pell-mell chariot race, from William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) – and in typical Samuel style begins to wreak merry havoc with history. In one chariot, careering through the streets of Jerusalem, ride Clarence and his pal Elijah (LaKeith Stanfield and Cyler, both returning from The Harder They Fall); in the other sits none other than Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor). Much is riding on this race: a victory for Clarence would help him claw his way out of the pit of debt he owes the ruthless local crime lord, Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). But unsurprisingly, Mary whups him, and our luckless, sweet-natured hero finds himself with even less time to come up with the goods.

James McAvoy and LaKeith Stanfield as Pontius Pilate and Clarence in The Book of Clarence (2023)

Meanwhile, Jesus of Nazareth, now 33 years old, has been performing miracles and gaining acolytes across the land. Clarence, however, has never seen him, and remains not only sceptical but downright irreligious: he is, to quote one of the script’s several old-world descriptions of occupations both age-old and current, a “seller of ungodly herbs”, and frequents the local ‘lingonweed’ bar. In one of the film’s cleverest inversions of Biblical canon, Clarence is the twin brother of Thomas (sometimes referred to in the Bible as Didymus, Greek for ‘twin’, and also played beautifully by Stanfield), who, far from being the ‘doubting Thomas’ of lore, is a deeply worshipful, sanctimonious apostle. It’s Thomas’s snubbing of his brother that catalyses the film’s second act: Clarence’s cynical efforts to make money off the credulous masses by performing fake miracles.

Samuel, too, is in the miracle business: he is attempting to transubstantiate disparate genre elements into a convincing, breathtaking whole. The film is gorgeous, particularly the costumery – with the Italian city of Matera standing in for Jerusalem, costume designer Antoinette Messam has made luxuriant use of the local tailoring talent – and it’s fun to notice Samuel dropping calling cards for his own faithful flock: a lithe dancer, painted all in deep blue, sidewinding her way around a den of iniquity is also a motif in The Harder They Fall.

But what appears at first to be impressive stylistic confidence – Samuel’s trademark use of hip-hop, reggae and soul music, much of which he wrote and performed himself, proves every bit as valid as the blaring orchestral scores of Hollywood’s mid-century swords-and-sandals epics – soon veers into complete tonal incoherence. The most obvious misstep is the finale, which, after more than 90 minutes of stoner comedy, action sequences and romance (Clarence is in love with Jedediah’s sister Varinia), suddenly finds itself possessed by the blood-soaked sincerity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). But even before that, some of its humour hovers around the level of Meet the Spartans (2008), while several running gags – namely two that revolve around mispronunciation – simply don’t stand up.

A bigger disappointment is the film’s treatment of political subtext. Samuel’s writing of Judas (Micheal Ward), as an existentially tortured secret agent for the Romans (who are all white), feels like an afterthought, particularly after Shaka King’s potent transposition of the Bible’s central betrayal myth to race-war-torn 1960s Chicago in Judas and the Black Messiah (2021). As in that film, the state-sponsored murder of Black heroes is presented here as a blunt political weapon. But as The Book of Clarence builds to its denouement, the theme of faith – not treated with the rigour it deserves – drowns out Samuel’s sharper commentary, and the film’s vaulting genre-blending ambitions collapse into mess

 ► The Book of Clarence is in UK cinemas from 19 April.