THE BOOK OF CLARENCE
Is there such a thing as black blasphemy? The Book of Clarence, I figure, thought of itself as a more inclusive representation of Scripture by having an almost all-black cast. However, it ended up playing like a spoof of Biblical films that was in turns bizarre, silly and downright offensive.
Separated into three Books (The 13th Apostle, The New Messiah and The Crucifixion), we start in Jerusalem, 33 AD. Street hustler Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) and his little buddy Elijah (RJ Cyder) are doing their best to survive the rough streets of the Roman occupied Judean capital. Clarence is dismissive of the newest Messiah to come through Jerusalem, even if one of His disciples is Clarence's own twin brother Thomas (Stanfield in a dual role). Clarence has gotten into trouble with local boss Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) and needs to come up with a lot of shekels to pay back his debt.
Now, during a marijuana-induced hallucination where the smokers literally get high, Clarence hits upon two good ideas (at least good to him). First, he will join Jesus' crew and become the 13th Apostle. After that causes the other apostles to break out into laughter, Clarence decides he will become a rival Messiah. He does become successful in his Messiah hype, aided by Elijah and a gladiator slave Clarence managed to free, Barabbas (Omar Sy), who claims to be immortal save for his heel.
Clarence becomes so intoxicated with his growing wealth and influence that he can afford to dismiss the claims of Jesus' mother Mary (Alfre Woodard) and adoptive father Joseph (Brian Bovell) about Jesus' miracles, such as bringing clay pigeons to life. He can romance Jedediah's sister Varinia (Anna Diop) but cannot escape the wrath of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy). Will Clarence end up showing he can rival Him? What of Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch), the dirty unkempt beggar who comes through the story and finds himself alongside Clarence? Will he look like a literal white savior?
The Book of Clarence is for those who thought Monty Python's Life of Brian was too reverential towards Christ. In many ways, The Book of Clarence plays like a whacked-out parody of Biblical epics, with a little representation thrown in. After all, isn't it time we had black Hebrew Israelites?
You can read the casting in The Book of Clarence one of two ways. One is to have the Jewish characters played by black actors because for some reason people just assume Jews in the time of Christ were not black. This line of thinking also allows for the Judeans in The Book of Clarence to be reflective of our times, as the oppressive Romans are all played by white actors. It might have been daring to have a literally all-black cast and had the Romans also played by black actors. However, since The Book of Clarence appears, in part, to try and "reflect the modern world", it was not about to suggest black people were anything other than oppressed.
As a side note, it is interesting that representation via casting black actors in historic films and television applies only to white historic figures (Jodie Turner-Smith as Anne Boleyn, Adrian Lester as Lord Randolph 2018's Mary Queen of Scots). To my knowledge, there has never been a call for LaKeith Stanfield to play Cesar Chavez or Jodie Turner-Smith to play Anna May Wong. I am curious as to what the reaction would if Turner-Smith were indeed cast as Wong. Yet, I digress.
The other way of looking at things is to see The Book of Clarence as being about the Black Israelite movement, which then makes the film closer to propaganda. The Black Israelite movement maintains that black people are the true Jews, and that is one of their less eccentric ideas. They have been labeled anti-Semitic, racists and Holocaust deniers. I do not know if writer/director Jeymes Samuel had that in mind when crafting that film. However, having literal black Israelites does leave him open to accusations as such.
I have no way of looking into Samuel's soul. I can look at The Book of Clarence and declare it simply awful separate from any real or unintended propaganda elements. In many ways, the film plays like a joke, and an unoriginal one at that. Certain times, Samuel's music plays like Miklos Rozsa's Ben-Hur score on steroids. Other times, the hip-hop soundtrack makes things look even odder than people literally floating after smoking weed.
Perhaps a little leeway can be granted when you have Elijah's sole character characteristic be smoking joints. However, The Book of Clarence's determination to be simultaneously of its time and of our time makes the dichotomy look nutty.
What is one to take when your performances are all over the place? David Oyelowo's John the Baptist is playing things for laughs, slapping Clarence for trying to fake his way to baptism (which John does anyway). Cumberbatch too seems to think the film is spoof until he meets a grisly end, one filled with bitterness. One moment he's camping it up (I think he did the "Buddy Christ" from Dogma meme), the next he's going on about how humans are "God's only mistake".
The worst is McAvoy, who is so hammy as Pilate to where one could see he isn't bothering to try and make this remotely serious. That may be the point, and perhaps The Book of Clarence is meant as a spoof. If so, no one informed Stanfield, who is so stoic for most of the film. With an affected theatrical accent, Stanfield thinks he is in a serious film. Everyone else appears to think they are in a comedy, intentional or not.
I will touch briefly on the theological aspects of the film; limited as my knowledge of Scripture is, I am aware that the story Mother Mary told about the clay pigeons is from the gnostic Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was seen as heresy even in the third century after Christ, though apparently is accepted as fact in the Koran. The story of the woman caught in adultery (the Gospel of John 8:1-11) is similarly far off from actual Scripture. For reasons unclear, the wanton woman being stoned was Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), whom was condemned as "that whore who sexes the Romans". In a more bizarre twist, the woman was saved when Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) literally raised His hand and stopped the flying stones midair.
Granted, Biblical knowledge may not be strong among even self-proclaimed Christians, but why add these elements when they are not needed?
Clarence is rejected by the Apostles, in part, because he rejects the Immaculate Conception. The Apostles literally use the term "immaculate conception". It is the laziness of The Book of Clarence to confuse the doctrine of The Virgin Birth (Christ being conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit to a virgin) with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (the Roman Catholic belief that Mary herself was conceived free from sin). They are not the same. Moreover, if we go by The Book of Clarence, Clarence is theologically correct to reject "the Immaculate Conception" as it is about Mary, not Jesus.
I think The Book of Clarence, far from being about representation in Biblical films, is a comedy. It is unclear if it was meant to be a comedy. I do know the audience was laughing at various points in the film. It is not well-acted. It is not well-directed. While one song, Nights Over Egypt, is good, it feels so wildly out-of-place even in the hip-hop soundtrack. As a side note, referencing King Tut is so out-there since it would not make sense on any level.
Those who would look upon The Book of Clarence as blasphemy might miss something entirely. Yes, it is blasphemous. It is also idiotic, boring and a waste of everyone's time: cast, crew and audience.