Monday, May 6, 2024

Review: The Book of Clarence

A unique, irreverent, genre-mixing dark comedy wrapped around deep messages on race and class

The theatrical trailer for The Book of Clarence left me feeling confused and a little uneasy about seeing the film. Was it an alternate history, a comedy, a parody, a tragic epic drama? Was it an allegorical Black social commentary, fantasy/sci-fi, religious, anti-religious? After seeing the film, the answer to all of these questions is: yes. There was so much going on in this story. The quirky presentation style is so unique that it’s hard to know who the target audience is. But sometimes weird is good.

The story is set during the last year of the life of Jesus. Yes, the Jesus. Jesus is a popular local celebrity in the area (due to his legendary miracles) but initially he remains mostly offscreen and is barricaded by an entourage of disciples. Clarence is a local hustler, but with a good heart. He gambles, sells drugs, drag-races chariots, and takes care of his ailing/aging mother. When his ill-gotten debts catch up to him and the local mobster threatens to kill him, Clarence hatches a scheme to make money by taking advantage of Jesus’s popularity as the Messiah. At first he tries to join the disciples but is immediately rejected by them, including his twin brother Thomas (yes, the famous doubting Thomas) so Clarence is prevented from any access to Jesus. Then he gets a better idea. He decides to con people into believing he is a miracle worker to get money.  Clarence enlists his best friend Elijah and recently freed fighter Barabbas to help with the scheme. But things take a turn when the occupying Roman military catches up with Clarence leading to an unexpected encounter with the real Jesus. The additional twist in this film is that, other than the occupying Romans, every character is Black.

The film is initially a parody of classic Bible epics such as Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, using ironically epic background music, dramatic chariot races, and even 1960s-style gold-framed title pages in between the major acts of the story. On the other hand, it is also fantastical. The drugs Clarence smokes with his friends cause them to temporarily float in the air with their bodies turning and spinning, gravity-free. When Clarence gets an idea, it materializes as an actual light above his head. The fantastical special effects are a surreal juxtaposition against the retro epic vibe.

At first, the feel of the film is epic and historical but also slightly comical/absurd. However, the film eventually dives into the true nature of belief, loyalty, and morality. Although the people in his community have a range of spiritual beliefs, particularly as it relates to the Messiah, Clarence seems to be the only one who doesn’t believe in any form of God or spirituality. However, he is willing to use the existing belief systems to achieve his goals by being a con artist and pretending to be an alternate Messiah. In a dual role, LaKeith Stanfield plays both Clarence and Clarence’s twin brother, Thomas the apostle, who has abandoned everything, including their ailing mother, to follow Jesus. Thomas despises Clarence’s petty criminal behavior, even as Clarence has devoted himself to caring for their mother. Thus we have the set-up of religious piety versus cynical pragmatism that permeates the film.

The best character in the film is Clarence’s best friend/sidekick Elijah. Elijah is open-minded about his beliefs, but also comfortable running scams and being loyal to Clarence and their bestie, chariot racer Mary Magdalene. In a pivotal scene, Mary Magdalene has been accused of adultery and chained to a wall to be brutally stoned to death. Elijah intervenes to protect her, risking his own death, but he cannot free her from the chain. Clarence is nowhere around and death seems imminent for Mary and Elijah until the real-deal Messiah shows up in a quietly jaw-dropping, Marvel-worthy scene.

The set design and costumes of the film are outstanding, making you feel transported to the ancient Jerusalem setting that has been reimagined for the story. The film also benefits from a strong cast reinterpreting classic characters, including Mary, the Mother of Jesus (hilariously played by Alfre Woodard), John the Baptist (David Oyelowo), and an irritable Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy). We also get quirky new characters played by Babs Olusanmokun from Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things, and an almost unrecognizable Benedict Cumberbatch who takes the film to new irreverence as an accidentally mistaken version of Jesus.

All these strange, quirky characters revolve around Clarence as he tries to make a better life for himself and prove himself worthy of his ill-fated love interest Varinia (Anna Diop). LaKeith Stanfield leans into the cynical, skeptical, onscreen personality he has used effectively in prior fantastical films like Sorry to Bother You, Haunted Mansion, and even Get Out. Despite his cynicism, Clarence has enough cliched character growth to make some positive societal choices for others, even as he still scams those around him. Clarence continues to pursue his fake Messiah miracles with growing success until he finds out the true cost of the path he has chosen. Then the film takes a serious and dramatic turn into a violent exploration of racism and classism. We think we know what is going to happen, but the final crucifixion scenes subvert both traditional narratives and cynical new viewer expectations.

The Book of Clarence throws many important social justice themes and philosophical questions at viewers who may ultimately feel overwhelmed and disoriented by the irreverent and quirky delivery style. The trope of the lovable rascal with the heart of gold is quickly subverted into an ultimate theme of “mess around and find out.” It’s been a long time since a film completely bewildered me in such a good way. This movie is not for everyone. But, if you have an appetite for quirkiness and a tolerance for explorations of hard truths wrapped in an allegory, The Book of Clarence will give you a great deal to think about.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10


  • Weird and provocative. Not for everyone.
  • Quirky subversive messaging.
  • Strong performances by the lead actors.

POSTED BY: Ann Michelle Harris – Multitasking, fiction writing Trekkie currently dreaming of her next beach vacation.