Review: The Book of Clarence Is a Smart, Sharp Satire of the Bible’s New Testament and Modern Race Relations

Here it is, everybody: the first truly great film of 2024 that isn’t a holdover from 2023. (A handful of movies are set for release in January and February that technically count as 2023 releases, at least as far as awards contenders go.)

From writer/director Jeymes Samuel (The Harder They Fall) comes the gutsy, poignant, and often quite funny The Book of Clarence, and the first critic who compares this film to Monty Python’s Life of Brian gets a slap in the face. Aside from the fact that both movies are comedies that are Jesus-adjacent, there are no similarities. Both an update on the bygone age of Hollywood Biblical epics and a sharp satire about what it takes to be a religious leader, the film features a strong commentary on modern Black life, all held together by a near-perfect lead performance by LaKeith Stanfield as both the streetwise titular character and his twin brother Thomas, who just happens to be a disciple of Jesus.

The film’s primary focus is on Clarence, a thief and con artist, working with his right-hand man Elijah (RJ Cyler), who loses everything when a deal goes wrong and ends up having to steal clothes from a homeless man (sneakily played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who pops up throughout the film). Determined to turn his life around, Clarence decides to follow in Jesus’s footsteps…sort of…by taking on the role of Messiah, gathering some followers, learning a few “miracles,” and accepting offerings (namely coins) from his admirers. Much of this he does to impress a woman (Anna Diop, Nanny), who just happens to be the sister of a Jedediah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), to whom Clarence owes a lot of money. Along the way, he frees a slave named Barabbas (Omar Sy), who becomes his primary bodyguard; gets advice from his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste); and crosses paths with Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), Jesus’s mother Mary (a very funny Alfre Woodard), and John the Baptist (David Oyelowo).

What begins to take shape in The Book of Clarence is an alternative-history version of the New Testament of the Bible, with events that happened to Jesus happening to Clarence instead. Even when Judas Iscariot (Micheal Ward) goes to betray Jesus (in a screamingly funny parody of the Last Supper), a different man is picked up who perhaps better fits the bill of a religious leader in this kind of movie. I especially liked the way Jesus (played with the correct amount of piousness by Nicholas Pinnock) seems blissfully ignorant of what his role in Clarence’s life is until it’s too late, and Clarence is arrested by the Romans (led by James McAvoy’s Pontius Pilate) for impersonating a Messiah, destined for crucifixion.

To be clear, pretty much the entire cast of this film is Black, with the exception of the Romans who are all white, and it doesn’t take long for filmmaker Samuel to draw direct lines between the unjust behavior of the Romans and modern-day incidents with law enforcement. During the course of Clarence’s journey for power and money, he figures out that the only way to be a better man is to do actual good deeds, begin to lead a spiritual life and find his own type of redemption. Samuel continues to fuel his movies with an absolutely ripping soundtrack by Samuel, with many tracks tinged with gospel strains and hip-hop voices from the likes of Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Kid Cudi.

Without ruining the ending, the story loops around to the familiar story of Jesus but with a few significant twists. As he has proven himself to be time and time again, Stanfield is absolutely convincing in every stage of Clarence’s evolution from a shrewd criminal (a drug dealer, if we’re being specific) to a redemptive and faith-driven man. You want him to succeed in both life and love, but we know in order for that to happen, he will likely end up on a cross alongside you-know-who. I might be guilty of oversimplifying just how smart and brazen the film can be at times, but I was in stitches for large portions of The Book of Clarence, and I feel certain additional viewings would reveal even more. When someone nailed to a cross delivers the line “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” to which someone else counters “God, kill all of these people,” I knew I was in the presence of greatness. Divine, indeed.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.