“The Book of Clarence”: New film brings irreverence to the biblical epic
In The Book of Clarence, LaKeith Stanfield plays a man who lives in the time of Jesus and decides to follow his example and declare himself the Messiah.
Spoiler alert! We discuss major plot points and the ending of The Book of Clarence (in theaters now), so be careful if you haven't seen it yet.
“The Book of Clarence” tells a different kind of Bible story in which the title character turns into a false prophet in order to make money during the time of Jesus Christ. In the end, however, writer/director Jeymes Samuel gets serious and reinterprets the crucifixion and resurrection with modern resonance.
Set in 33 AD, the film – a black perspective on the biblical epic genre – stars LaKeith Stanfield as Clarence, a weed dealer from Jerusalem who sees how people treat Jesus and his apostles and demands the same respect. He proclaims himself the “new Messiah”, stages Jesus' miracles with his friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) and takes money from the public.
Clarence starts doing something good, like freeing slaves, but is arrested by Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), who targets “false” messiahs like Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock). Much to Clarence's surprise, he does not sink when the Roman governor orders him to walk on the water and Pilate is forced to crucify him.
Through Clarence, Samuel re-enacts the carrying of the cross and crucifixion of Jesus with brutal effect. Clarence struggles to climb the hill with the cross as onlookers throw things and Roman soldiers whip him, and at one point his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) screams, “They always take our babies!”
“The Book of Clarence”: How the new film brings majesty back to the biblical Hollywood epic
“The Book of Clarence” deviates from the iconography of a “blue-eyed Jesus.”
The burden Clarence carries in this scene is “the cross we all carry,” Samuel says. “We feel this as we grow up in our neighborhoods and surroundings, and our parents feel like they are always taking our babies with them. A lot has changed, but a lot hasn't.
“It was a truth that I had to tell,” says the filmmaker. “Besides the laughter and the smiles and the joy and the laughter, there is also the pain that you only see coming on the day it happens, but that always hangs over us.”
The image of a black man trudging toward his crucifixion “shakes us out of the numbed version of it,” says David Oyelowo, who plays John the Baptist and is himself a devout Christian. “We're so used to the iconography of a white, sometimes blonde, blue-eyed Jesus with this cross. Because it’s so far outside of what we’ve seen before, it means you’re suddenly able to engage with it in a different way.”
Stanfield remembers a “cornucopia of emotions” during filming. “The cross wasn't overly heavy, but it wasn't light either,” says the actor, who took off his shoes to feel the stones under his feet. “The idea of being slashed across the back with a whip didn't go over my head and what that might imply or mean: power structures and how oppression was used to keep people docile.
“I almost felt like I had been wanting to tell the truth for years, that someone wanted to get by, wanted to let go and couldn't. And so it made every step worth it and made the blood, the sweat and the harder aspects of it worth it.”
Jeymes Samuel's inspired resurrection scene has a message for us all
And just like in the Bible, Clarence dies on the cross but is resurrected. In the final scene of the film, Jesus breaks the stone of the tomb where Clarence is buried and tells him to get up. “The one who believes in me, even though he dies, he will live,” Jesus tells Clarence as a light bulb lights up over the former unbeliever’s head and he smiles and weeps.
Samuel wanted the audience to leave with an image of themselves: “We are here, we are alive,” he says. “Clarence has been given another chance, so what will he do with his time?”
He was inspired in part by a memory from when he was eleven, believing that time was an acronym meaning “This is my era.”
“When you think about it, you realize that you treat people a lot better,” says Samuel. “You would be much more conscientious about what you do with your moment.” Because actually we are only here to take a quick look under the sun's rays. But in this glimpse, the sun is ours. What are you going to do with it?”
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