A few years back, recording artist-turned-filmmaker Jeymes Samuel (aka “The Bullits,” and also Seal‘s brother) made a pretty decent action-packed Western called The Harder They Fall. It was such a strong debut with a terrific ensemble cast, that a lot of people in Hollywood who saw it must have wanted to work with him. For his second feature, Samuel also still has rap mogul Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z in his corner as producer.
Like that film, Samuel wrote and directed Clarence, as well as created the score, casting LaKeith Stanfield as the title character, a poor schlub in ancient Jerusalem who sees all the acclaim and fame a guy named Jesus has been receiving and decides, first, that he wants to become Jesus’ 13th apostle, and then decides he should become a Messiah himself. Much of his motivation comes from owing a great sum of money to the presumably crooked Jebediah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), plus Clarence is also in love with Jebediah’s sister (Anna Diop). Yeah, there’s a lot going on here, and if that wasn’t enough story for you, Stanfield also plays Clarence’s twin brother, thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples.
As someone who remembers all the controversy surrounding Monty Python’s Life of Bryan, it’s a little disheartening that The Book of Clarence does at least try to start out as a comedy, though one with very few actual laughs, as it mainly relies on physical humor like people slapping each other, particularly Clarence. Life of Brian had so much bite to it, while Clarence just throws lame jokes into an otherwise rather serious and eventually quite somber story.
Samuel isn’t a terrible filmmaker in terms of craft, but he bases his second feature on such a weak premise, and the execution of storytelling has so many tonal issues, it’s very hard to ever be along for the ride. Make no mistake that Stanfield is a fine actor who throws himself into wherever the material takes him, even if it’s trying to maintain some sort of humorous tone for a good part of the movie, before things get too dark and dramatic to keep it up.
The cast surrounding Stanfield is also pretty impressive, whether it’s RJ Cyler (Emergency) or Senegalese-American actress Anna Diop (Titans) and even Teyana Taylor (A Thousand and One), the latter two both recent breakout stars, as well as Omar Sy as a gladiator companion. Samuel also cast Micheal Ward, who was so great in the underrated Empire of Light. If there weren’t already more than enough characters thrown at us, the movie also has (essentially) cameos by some acting greats like David Oyelowo and Alfre Woodard, who basically show up for one scene, making you wonder if that’s the only reason they agreed to do the movie. And then, for whatever reason, Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as a THIRD Messiah, this one looking more like the Jesus we all know, but one that shows up with little very purpose except to confuse matters. That’s probably the worst infraction Clarence commits is that Samuel could get so many great actors to sign on to this project, but then wastes them with such weak materia.
The film’s music should be its strong point, and there’s no question that Clarence‘s score would make a damn fine soundtrack album, although some of Samuel’s decisions just don’t play, including the constant intrusion of soul, funk, RnB, and rap blended into the more typical grandiose scoring that would normally be used for a biblical epic. In other words, this would be a great album to listen to, though the music doesn’t necessarily work with the movie proper. Otherwise, things like costume, hair and makeup, and even editing just aren’t where they need to be to pull off what Samuel needs in terms of the look of the movie.
Similarly, Samuel tries to throw things into this story that would be more relevant to today’s audiences by drawing parallels to how the Roman centurions treat our protagonists, similar to how white police (and white racists) have treated innocent black people. It does lead to a strong monologue by Eric Kofi-Abrefa that may be one of the film’s high points, at least in terms of Samuel’s screenplay.
Not only is there a real question of who might want to pay to see this movie – black audiences who worship Jesus might find its general tone and direction to be offensive – but it’s probably even less entertaining to those who might not have nearly as much faith. Therefore, box office prospects remain on the lower side.
The Book of Clarence is more than a little disappointing, not only because Samuel has taken all the promise of his first movie and squandered it on a project that tries way too hard to achieve something that never quite works. It’s so hard to get on board with whatever he’s trying to do that the movie is pretty tough to get through. In other words, just skip this and watch The Life of Brian, which is on Netflix, instead.
Awards Potential: None
Box Office Potential: Maybe $20 million domestic
Overall Score: C-
The Book of Clarence hits theaters nationwide on Friday, Jan. 12.
Studio: Sony Pictures
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, with James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch
Writer/Director: Jeymes Samuel
Producers: Jeymes Samuel, Shawn Carter, James Lassiter, Tendo Nagenda
DP: Rob Hardy
Production Design: Peter Walpole
Costume Design: Antoinette Messam
Editor: Tom Eagles
Score by: Jeymes Samuel