Monday, June 17, 2024

“The Book of Clarence” Finds Laughter in the Search for Salvation

Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) in TriStar Pictures’ THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.

Written and Directed  by: Jeymes Samuel

Executive Produced by: Jeymes Samuel and Shawn Carter

Starring:  LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Michael Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck man named Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) struggles to find a better life for his family while fighting to free himself of debt. Captivated by the power and glory of the rising Messiah, he risks everything to carve his own path to a divine life, ultimately discovering that the redemptive power of belief may be his only way out.

The Book of Clarence transcends expectations; dismissing the film as a mere religious spoof would be a disservice to this multifaceted project. If I could compare it to anything, I would say it’s like a modernized version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but Director Jeymes Samuel does more with this film as it weaves faith, social commentary, and humor together, begging for post-viewing conversation. 

While Clarence’s journey mirrors certain stories from biblical narratives, it’s not a retelling of familiar characters from the Bible like Barabbas (Omar Sy), John the Baptist (David Oyelowo), and Mary Magdalene (Teyana Tayor); it’s integrating characters into a narrative that challenge the audience to read about these figures on their own and have the viewer identify comparable characters in their own lives. Nonetheless, each actor portrays their character very well and is challenged to master comedic timing while displaying their own unique acting chops. My favorite is Barabbas, who is like Luke Cage in regards to durability and a no-nonsense attitude.

Clarence finds himself trying to improve his life, like many of us; he’s a very intelligent and gifted individual who can be and do so much more than he believes. He devises plans to hustle his way toward wealth with ideas ranging from becoming one of God’s apostles to becoming a messiah like Jesus himself. There is a little bit of Clarence in all of us; some have been able to turn that drive into something positive, but others, like Clarence, still struggle to hone this gift.

Stanfield delivers a tour-de-force performance as Clarence, inhabiting his struggles, vulnerabilities, and moments of manic inspiration. Those familiar with Stanfield know he has great acting range, which he is able to display here in this film. Not only does he portray Clarence, he also plays Clarence’s twin brother Thomas, who is supposed to resemble Thomas the Apostle. Stanfield is able to deliver applaudable performances as both. 

What I find to be most impressive is during the third act, where Stanfield and the other actors take this light-hearted tone and turn it into a more serious and heartbreaking film, which I myself was not prepared for and I wouldn’t be surprised if audience members have the same reaction.  

Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and Varinia (Anna Diop) in TriStar Pictures’ THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.

Nicholas Pinnock portrays the Jesus Christ figure, but he doesn’t take the portrayal too seriously as he tells a few jokes and keeps the tone light for most of the film. I can appreciate this contrast as we’ve seen how brutal it was to sit through Passion of the Christ, which was good but tough to watch. Clarence, on the other hand, gives us a refreshing portrayal. There are some references and funny scenes about how people imagine Jesus to look. There is even a meme reference that is on screen for a few seconds. I found it to be a humorous way to tie in contemporary media with history on the big screen.

There is a good amount of social commentary in the film, especially when it comes to racism and classism. For instance, how the Romans pulled over the civilians in Egypt for no reason or because they “fit a description”, much like some authority figures do in modern day. It shows us, in a light-hearted manner, that not much has changed over thousands of years.

Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), Barabbas (Omar Sy) and Elijah (RJ Cyler) in TriStar Pictures’ THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the film is that all the characters vary in style, language (various accents), and interactions with others, showing that these characters are indeed Black but are not a monolith, as we are a mixture of people in Africa. I really appreciate the director for this approach.

Samuels is known to have some dope movie soundtracks and, with The Book of Clarence, he continues to live up to that reputation as it pulsates with the film’s emotional heartbeat, shifting effortlessly from upbeat hip-hop tracks to throwback track “Nights Over Egypt” by The Jones Girls (which, I’m not going to lie, I’ve had on my playlist ever since hearing it in this film).

Speaking of The Jones Girls’ track, a dance segment occurs while the track is playing in the background reminiscent of “Remember the Time” by Michael Jackson. Some of the other viewers agreed and saw the resemblance; it’s uncanny, and I’m sure the clip will be trending on social media. The actors and dancers looked like they had fun with this scene and enjoyed every moment. Of course I can’t forget to mention that Samuels composed and created all the original music for this film, talk about a multi-hyphenate!

The Book of Clarence is not merely a comedy, nor is it solely a drama. It’s a genre-bending mixture, a cinematic kaleidoscope that challenges assumptions and provokes thought. Some may find the tonal shifts jarring, but this fluidity makes the film so engaging. It mirrors the messy, unpredictable nature of life itself, where laughter and tears often share the same stage. This may throw some viewers and critics off, but I find that these types of films better connect with audiences like myself. Because, let’s face it, I don’t want to feel sad throughout a whole movie; it’s exhausting. 

Barabbas (Omar Sy) in TriStar Pictures’ THE BOOK OF CLARENCE.

The film is not without its flaws. At times, its brisk pace may leave some yearning for deeper exploration of certain themes. But these are minor quibbles in the face of what I think is a masterfully created and acted out story that I am sure audiences will enjoy. 

Ultimately, The Book of Clarence is a reminder that laughter and faith can coexist, that humor can be a powerful tool for exploring sensitive themes, and that redemption can come in the most unexpected forms. It also challenges people to re-examine what faith, spirituality, and religion are. Clarence is an atheist who questions God’s existence because of the conditions that he and others experience daily, but it is through miracles that he begins to rediscover the magic of having faith. So, as the film doesn’t force religion down your throat like a dry biscuit, it does implore you to look around and think about what faith is. 

After two viewings and much reflection, I give The Book of Clarence an 8/10. Jeymes’ ability to seamlessly transition between laugh-out-loud moments and deeply-affecting scenes is masterful, creating an engaging film that will have viewers talking well after the credits are over.

Dapper Dr Feel

Felipe Patterson aka Dapper Dr. Feel, #BlackLoveConvo & Entertainment | @fdapperdr Dapper Dr. Feel is a Entertainment journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association and African American Film Association.

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