At a time when breakthrough directors can only get incorporated into the studio system via micro-managed franchise blockbusters, it certainly pays to be friends with Jay-Z. The rap mogul is one of the lead producers on both films by Jeymes Samuel––the producer-turned-auteur who previously gave us the Netflix western The Harder They Fall––and his clout is, I assume, largely the reason a relatively untested filmmaker has been allowed to make big-budget, original projects in genres unfashionable among contemporary Hollywood. After a middling attempt to reinvigorate the Western, Samuel is setting his sights on the Biblical epic with The Book of Clarence, which has more than a few nods to Cecil B. DeMille but wants to make clear it is approaching this faith-based genre with an irreverence best described as “Life of Brian, but PG-13 friendly.”

Samuel’s debut was a classic case of style over substance: a well-intentioned attempt to place Black characters at the center of a genre that has been routinely whitewashed, and which fell flat because it couldn’t hide reliance on genre tropes. His sophomore effort is a considerable improvement in this regard, even if it does take a while to find its feet––in fact, Clarence puts its worst foot forward in its very first shot, a flash-forward that ruins the best punchline nearly two hours before the joke is even set up. I won’t spoil it here, but the presence of Benedict Cumberbatch in that opening is likely to put even the most unengaged audience member ten steps ahead as to how he’ll be utilized when properly introduced much later.  

Clarence‘s opening chapter, “The 13th Apostle,” is by far its weakest. Opening credits announce Samuel is responsible for the film’s music, and you can tell: nearly every sequence of this early stretch is scored to one of his compositions (many of which, the end credits highlight, feature his own vocal work), and it often feels like watching a “visual album” rather than a narrative film. The style-over-substance charges leveled at his prior effort will likely resurface here, especially when he half-heartedly introduces some surreal visuals into proceedings––a group of weed smokers beginning to levitate, or a lightbulb reappearing on top of Clarence’s head every time he thinks up a new scheme. It’s immediately noticeable that his attempts at modernizing a genre that was at its cultural peak in the 1950s largely comes down to making everything play like a music video; it never plays more incoherent than in this opening stretch.

But things start coming together once the fail son Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) devises his master plan to follow in his twin brother’s footsteps: banishing his atheism and instead becoming a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, hoping it will gain him the respect––and money––currently lacking in his life. Upon revealing this plan he’s immediately shut down and told that, if he wants to be taken seriously, he should perform a selfless act. That act, it turns out, is freeing the slaves kept as gladiators by the Romans, and it’s in this first act fight-to-the-death sequence when it suddenly became clear what Samuel was striving for. Bare-knuckle boxing, in an oft-kilter take on familiar material? It’s obvious: he wants to do for the oldest franchise of all (the BCU: Bible Cinematic Universe) what Guy Ritchie did for Sherlock Holmes. This might be the moment most viewers begin rolling their eyes, but it was where I found his attempt at creating a Biblical tale––even such a loosely adapted take like this––began to make sense. 

For as much as The Book of Clarence is a broad comedy that openly flirts with religious heresy, it does ultimately become a sincere tale of faith; there’s no way to make that palatable for modern audiences quite like the combination of contemporary blockbuster action (all of which is, it should be noted, as well-staged as you’d expect from a proud visual stylist), and Marvel-adjacent, but not-as-insufferable-as-you’d-expect gags about how far-fetched many classic tales from scripture are. Admittedly, variations of these gags have been told for centuries, but when you have (for example) an actor of Alfre Woodard’s stature cameoing as Mother Mary, broad jokes about the immaculate conception you’ve heard countless times before still manage to land. There remain shortcomings to the religious satire; after the laughs settle, an ingenious gag about how Jesus came to be mostly portrayed as white for centuries falls apart when you consider this film’s all-around lack of Arab actors. Placing Black performers at the center of this whitewashed genre doesn’t fully reckon with the extent of whitewashing that has taken place prior. 

By its second act, The Book of Clarence begins leaving its satire to the side to become a sincere biblical epic––well-versed enough in scripture to feel worthy of inclusion in that genre, even if it has no basis in the Good Book. In fact, the more it begins to grapple with the nature of faith as Clarence attempts to make a quick buck by passing himself off as a new messiah, the more engrossing it becomes, letting down its shield of ironic humor to fully commit to the tale it’s telling. It’s far closer to a mega-budget faith-based drama than Life of Brian (to which it has already been inevitably compared), and once it starts realizing this, it’s all the better. It’s a reminder that the biblical adaptations of old became legitimate blockbusters because of the strength of their storytelling, and not because of a demand to see religious tales onscreen. Once Samuel stops trying to modernize the genre with layers of music-video style and comedic irony, his film becomes surprisingly effective––it just takes a little while to get there. 

The Book of Clarence screened at the BFI London Film Festival and will be released in 2024.

Grade: C+

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