Friday, January 26, 2024

Review: "THE BOOK OF CLARENCE" - Black is Beautiful and So is Enlightenment

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 3 of 2024 (No. 1947) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Book of Clarence (2024)
Running time:  129 minutes (2 hours, 9 minutes)
MPA – PG-13 for strong violence, drug use, strong language, some suggestive material, and smoking
PRODUCERS:  Shawn Carter (Jay-Z), James Lassiter, Tendo Nagenda, and Jeymes Samuel
EDITOR:  Tom Eagles
COMPOSER:  Jeymes Samuel


Starring:  LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, RJ Cyler, David Oyelowo, Michael Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor, Caleb McLaughlin, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Chase Dillon,  Babs Olusanmokun, Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, and Nicholas Pinnock

The Book of Clarence is a 2024 comedy-drama and religious film written and directed by Jeymes Samuel.  The film focuses on a wayward man who decides to capitalize on the rise of Jesus by also declaring himself to be “the Messiah.”

The Book of Clarence opens in Lower Jerusalem, the home of the “Gypsies,” in the year 33 A.D, and it introduces a young man named Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield).  He is down-on-his-luck and is drifting in life.  He spends time selling weed with his close friend and sidekick, Elijah (RJ Cyler).  Their latest scheme is a chariot race against Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), which goes disastrously bad.  In turn, that puts Clarence and Elijah deep in debt to a local crime boss, Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi Abrefa), who threatens their lives if he isn't paid in 30 days.

Meanwhile, Clarence's twin brother, Thomas (LaKeith Stanfield), is one of the 12 Apostles that follow Jesus of Nazareth (Nicholas Pinnock).  After failing to make inroads with his brother's associates, Clarence decides to capitalize on Jesus and the rise of messianic figures by declaring himself “the Messiah.”  Clarence does not believe in the existence of God, but he finds success by preaching “knowledge over belief.”  Soon, Clarence has a large number of followers, and they are making him wealthy.  But then, something happens...

The Book of Clarence is not as partisan as Mel Gibson's 2004 masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ, nor is it Black-centric and anti-racist in the way director Jean-Claude La Marre's The Color of the Cross (2006) is.  In The Book of Clarence, Jesus is a Black man, but the narrative isn't really about Jesus being black.  The people of Jerusalem are black, but that just seems to be the way it is supposed to be – nothing special or deliberate.  Also, I don't think the film ever refers to them as Jews or Hebrews (as far as I can remember).

The Book of Clarence's plot and themes, which are soft and muddled in the film's middle act, seem to converge on the notion of enlightenment, not the movement “Enlightenment, but as a state of knowledge and understanding.  Clarence, who pushes knowledge over belief, gets the lesson that knowledge without understand is empty, the equivalent of “faith without good works is dead.”  The Book of Clarence unveils these messages and ideas, not with seriousness, but with sly wit and also with subtle digs at oppression, racism, and imperialism – for good measure.

That aside, the thing that most impresses me about The Book of Clarence is that writer-director Jeymes Samuel presents a film in which Black people are so very beautiful and alluring in all their varying dark and brown shades, all the textures and styles of their hair, and all the shapes, contours, and statures of their bodies.  Yet in spite of its allusions to white oppression, as all the Roman characters are white, The Book of Clarence treats having an all-Black cast play the characters in a story set in the time of Jesus as an utterly normal thing.  It's about time; British, Irish, and American actors have been frontin' in Biblical films as if that is an entirely normal thing.  [Even if Jesus was Caucasian, he wasn't white...]

Jeymes Samuel fills his film with outstanding performances, especially LaKeith Stanfield's powerful, eccentric, turn as Clarence.  It is too late in his career to discover Stanfield as a revelation; we been knew he was good.  He makes Clarence's awkward, bumbling, stumbling journey to enlightenment seem like a real, tangible thing.  I feel Clarence's evolution in my head and in my imagination.

Also, David Oyelowo knocks the film on its ass as the back-handing John the Baptist, much the way Alfre Woodard upends notions of Jesus Christ's mother, Mary, as “Mother Mary” later in the film.  Teyana Taylor throws her beauty at us as Mary Magdalene, and Anna Diop digs out the awkward layers of Varinia, Clarence's love-interest.  And RJ Cyler gives a best supporting actor type performance as Clarence's best friend and partner, Elijah.

The Book of Clarence isn't perfect.  Its plot staggers and lurches at times as it moves towards its explosive final act, which is filled with breath-taking miracles and shocking plot twists.  The film apparently was originally scheduled for a  theatrical release in September 2023, but ultimately made its only 2023 appearance via its world premiere at the 67th London Film Festival.  So as fate... or God would have it, The Book of Clarence is the best film of 2024 – thus far.

8 of 10
★★★★ out of 4 stars

Friday, January 26, 2024

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