The Book of Clarence Movie Review
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Some may be put off by The Bullitts’ Book of Clarence (2024) because of its religious overtones and that would be a shame. There are few contemporary stories about devotion and deliverance that don’t feel like a wild-eyed pastor shouting in your face. This is a story for the people told in plain language and an eye-popping palette.
Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) is the twin brother of Thomas (also LaKeith Stanfield), one of the Chosen Apostles of the alleged Messiah. The Apostles have purpose and respect around town, things that Clarence, a con man, thief and low-level cornerboy desperately wants. He’s also in massive amounts of debt to Jebediah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) that are coming due with either repayment or death. No one expects much of Clarence, not his mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), not the Apostles, not even his good friends, Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor) and Elijah (RJ Cyler). Clarence knows there are better things waiting for him, so long as he doesn’t have to work hard for them. He comes up with a scheme to become rich and respected to win the hand of his secret love, Varinia (Anna Diop) all in one fell swoop: become the Next Messiah. To pull this off he’ll need to fool some of the people, all of the Romans, and most important, himself, since he doesn’t believe in God. Knowledge before belief is his mantra and he’ll need a Prophet-sized miracle to pull it off.
Unlike recent religious movies that seem heavy-handed about God, Heaven, Christ, and the Bible, The Book of Clarence is Bible-era themed, with the actual religion taking a back-of-the-bus approach. Yes, Jesus Christ (Nicholas Pinnock) is here, His face shadowed beneath the hood of His robes and performing minor miracles (and one fantastic one that doesn’t reveal itself until the third act) but this isn’t about Jesus. Clarence is the focus, and his redemption arc is accidental, especially to himself.
The Bullitts (aka Jeymes Samuel) may be best known for writing and directing 2021’s The Harder They Fall, a Black Western about revenge and power, also starring Stanfield and Cyler, that gave the genre a little color – so to speak. He does the same for the Bible, stripping away the European veneer, and creating an approachable comedic drama about religion that doesn’t beat the audience over the head with preachy piety. Jerusalem is a crime-ridden ghetto full of rats, drugs, and beggars, and is occupied by Romans on the hunt for the one Savior who threatens their power. There are house parties, beauty salons, and drag races on the strip. It’s life among the people who lived there and The Bullitts creates a relatable story about self-reliance with only a teeny bit of faith thrown in for flavor.
The Bullitts also calls The Book of Clarence a Hollywood epic, and in a way it is. Sweeping vistas and chariot races may certainly call to mind The Ten Commandments (1956) or Ben Hur (1959), but without the heavy-handed parables and Voice of God. All of the voices here are inner ones, with a thumping soundtrack featuring Jay-Z, Doja Cat, and Kid Cudi, among others. It’s music to meditate to if you need your whole body in it.
The Book of Clarence gives standout performances with striking visuals, and even with the swearing and unflinching violence, it’s worthy of Gammy’s Church group. You don’t have to go for the message, in fact, it’s perfectly okay to ignore it all together, but it redefines the hue of Jerusalem’s Faith and Faithful without making it an overly earnest and embarrassing parody of itself.
The Book of Clarence (2024) is Rated PG-13 for swears, drug sales, drug use, treatment of the unhoused, spearing, stabbing, crucifying, and stoning.