Feature New Release Reviews

New Release: The Book of Clarence (Jeymes Samuel, 2023)

It’s rare in the modern Hollywood landscape to see movies that deal with faith in a very direct way. Religious epics were once a staple genre with the American world of movies, but perhaps more than any other genre, they’ve disappeared from popular American filmmaking since their heyday in the 1950s. What remains is a strange, smaller, often right-wing world of Christian movies that are aimed more at converting and evangelizing than exploring the actual stories of the Bible or legitimate questions about what it means to have faith and how faith should play a role in our personal lives. The God’s Not Dead franchise comes to mind.

But The Book of Clarence (2023), directed by Jeymes Samuel, is nowhere near that world, nor is it a biblical movie the Old Hollywood style of, say, Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) or William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), although it definitely places itself in the lineage of those types of films. It’s sort of a religious epic, and sort of a revisionist film, and also a very funny comedy. In short, it’s trying to be a lot of things at once, and although it doesn’t pull everything off with equal success, it’s exciting to see someone aim for something so high and so new, especially on a larger scale within the studio system. Samuel isn’t new to this kind of thing; his last film (his feature debut), The Harder They Fall (2021), mixed classic Hollywood Western aesthetics with an imaginative look at real life black figures of the American West, as well as a soundtrack more steeped in modern hip hop music, with appearances from artists such as Jay-Z and Jadakiss, than the Sergio Leone vibe that most western soundtracks go for. TBOC is equally inventive with its soundtrack, with Samuel bringing back Jay-Z and bringing in musical legends like D’Angelo and even the incomparable Jorge Ben Jor.

It should also be noted how strong the performances are in this film. Lakeith Stanfield continues his career-long streak of being believable within any role in any context, playing not just the titular Clarence but also his holier than thou apostle twin brother Thomas. Only an actor
as skilled as he could hold a movie with so many different tones together. Omar Sy and David Oyelowo bring both action and humor as biblical figures Barabbas and John the Baptist, while Marianne Jean-Baptiste delivers a grounded and moving performance as Clarence’s mother, Amina. There’s also a memorable villainous turn from Irish actor Tom Vaughn-Lawler as Roman Antoninus.

The movie is, however, not without its faults. It runs a bit long, and the way it moves between comedy, action, and intense spiritual drama can be a little clunky at times, especially towards the second half.

But unlike so many Hollywood filmmakers today, Samuel is genuinely taking risks and trying to create his own filmmaking language. He’s trying things, and succeeding with staggering, if a bit rough around the edges, results. From the literal light bulbs above people’s heads when they have ideas to the thoughtful casting decision to have white, mostly British actors playing the Roman subjugators, there is so much in this movie to enjoy and think about. You can see how much Samuel loves everything about his film, and that love does not come off as self congratulatory but rather feels infectious and completely earned. In a creatively drought ridden environment of tentpole franchise films, remakes, reboots, sequels, and adaptations, it is rejuvenating to see a film like this, a film that is genuinely bold and artistic.

By Oscar O'Neill

Oscar O'Neill is an artist and writer living in Chicago, Illinois. He loves to talk about films with really anyone who will listen.

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