The Book of Clarence is a fresh and surprising take on a Jesus film

Written by Steve Norton

Set during the first century, The Book of Clarence tells the story of Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a man who believes that he’s not a nobody—but the world around him disagrees. In debt to a local crime boss, Clarence wants to find a better life so that he can impress the woman he loves.

When his twin brother, Thomas (also played by Stanfield) arrives as a disciple of Jesus, Clarence becomes jealous of his fame and decides to take matters into his own hands. It seems the people around him are looking for a messiah, so he decides to give them want they want, and make a little extra cash along the way. But as Clarence’s con spins out of control, he must confront his own heart to see what he truly believes.

Written and directed by Jeymes Samuel, The Book of Clarence aims to disassemble assumptions, such as the way that the West has historically portrayed Jesus in art/storytelling.  Think about it. Likely, when you imagine Jesus’ face, your imagined image probably stems from paintings and movies that you’ve seen in the past (often in the form of a handsome, Caucasian Jesus).

The Book of Clarence slices into these assumptions with glee. While framing itself as a classical biblical epic, the film’s creators are aware that much of the way that we picture the time of Jesus stems from pop culture. As a result, they use the tropes that we’ve learned over time against us in order to point out the flaws in our assumptions about history. Faded scene transitions, classic cinematic fonts, and a more human depiction of the disciples all work toward breaking down the way that art has formed our view of history. (There’s even a moment where the cast of all-Black disciples assemble themselves into a tableau of da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper.)

By being willing to take risks, The Book of Clarence gives viewers an opportunity to see the story of Jesus through fresh eyes. By telling the story through Clarence’s perspective, we see the everyday struggles of those who lived during that day. The film doesn’t try to prove how great Jesus is for those who follow him. Instead, it looks at how people view Jesus when their lives haven’t lived up to their expectations.

Everyone in this film knows this isn’t the way things should be. In a world similar to today, Clarence’s time is fueled by racial and political tension. Everywhere they go, the Romans seem to have their foot on the throat of the people—oppressing those who are supposed to be under their care. (For instance, one key moment feels eerily similar to a stop and frisk.)  Clarence doesn’t want to start a revolution, but he understands the need for one. He wants to be free and so does everybody else.

As a result, the film’s characters struggling under the Roman regime are looking for the next voice to rise from the crowd. And they’re listening to anybody who tells them things can be different.

Yet, even with all the parody and drama, Book of Clarence takes Jesus very seriously. The actual Messiah is held in high esteem. Even though the world seems to be falling apart around Jesus, those who pay attention to his message find something that matters. They recognize the true Messiah amid the many false preachers vying for their attention. Stories of grace, healing, and hope spark life into the town all around Clarence.

Underneath the humour, The Book of Clarence is a spiritual meditation on what it really means to be changed by Jesus.

The film does a good job showing the impact that Jesus has on those who are struggling amid profound personal turmoil and cultural injustice. If people are being judged for their sin, he fires back that the one who is perfect should cast the first stone. If they are ill, he can heal. If they are lonely, he lets them know that they matter. Jesus sees the value in those whom society neglects.

That’s the beauty of Jesus that shines through The Book of Clarence. Just like us, these are people who are looking for answers but don’t know where to get them. Yet through it all, Jesus never wavers with grace and truth.

The Book of Clarence shows the sorts of changes that can happen when people believe in Jesus. The movement of Christ in their lives translates into action in the very real world, setting the stage for justice, hope and healing for those who have been broken.

Steve Norton is a writer and podcaster based in Toronto, ON; he’s also an editor at ScreenFish. Read more from “Behind the screens” column.