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Black culture meets biblical times in ‘The Book of Clarence’

Black culture meets biblical times in ‘The Book of Clarence’
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In a film that encompasses religious narratives, current political and social justice challenges, a love story, head-bobbing music and people getting high, “The Book of Clarence” is no ordinary tale of biblical times. However, in a hilarious satire that highlights the beautiful nuances of Black culture, Jeymes Samuel’s new film examines faith, belief and the meaning of true knowledge — leaving audiences entertained and unpacking ideals all at once.

Dr. Racquel Gates and “The Book of Clarence” co-producer Tendo Nagenda (Ja’Mon Jackson/The Washington Informer)

Writer and director Samuel, who also wrote the music for the film, called “The Book of Clarence” “a cinematic extravaganza 2000 years in the making,” in a message played before the film premiere at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s (NMAAHC) Oprah Winfrey Theatre.

“The Bible gives you broad strokes, and those are the bricks. The mortar that holds it all together is our faith,” said Samuel. “But what are the stories that exist within the cracks of that mortar? What are the everyday nonfictional lives that criss-crossed with biblical history as a backdrop? What of the hairdressers, and the village cobblers and the charlatans, and the guy that made Jesus’ sandals?”

“The Book of Clarence” imagines the lives of those people who walked the same cobblestones as Jesus.

Set in 33 A.D., audiences follow the journey of Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), twin brother to Thomas (also played by Stanfield), one of Jesus’ 12 apostles.  

Having to pay up a major debt, Clarence crafts up a not-so-Christ-like plan to make money. Without ruining the film, Clarence finds himself having to pay for his bad deeds, but in the process, discovers a power in himself he never knew he possessed.  

With a hilarious and captivating performance by Stanfieled as Clarence, audiences begin to examine their own faith, values and dreams.

“It’s a story of a man’s journey of self-discovery,” Samuel said. “And my sincerest hope is that you’ll see this film and conclude, dreams may seem out of reach, but they are not dreams at all. They’re your ambitions, plans and intentions, and they’re quite tangible and real.”

Making Space for Black Jesus, Black Stories

While the movie was shot in the same Italian city where “The Passion of the Christ” was filmed, “The Book of Clarence” is not for the person looking for the story of Jesus’s life, crucifixion and ascension. This film, however, offers a beautiful, Black imagining of what Jerusalem was like, and how people lived and navigated political and social dynamics.

Dr. Erika Gault, director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life, noted before the NMAAHC premiere that “The Book of Clarence” “makes space” for all sorts of people, no matter the journey in their faithwalk.

“I believe that we are most faithful when we ask questions and when we can hold space for others’ questions as well,” Gault said. “We make room … [for] the preacher and the weed man, the millennial and the church mothers, a capacious Christ — a Jesus, Black and beautiful, beaten black and blue, who hurts like us, gets arrested on trumped up charges like us.”

Producer Tendo Nagenda and museum curator and theologian Dr. Teddy Reeves shared their thoughts on the film following the premiere in a conversation by Columbia University professor Dr. Racquel Gates.

“[Black people] definitely did exist in those days so why haven’t we seen it,” said Nagenda, who produced the film along with Samuel and rapper and business mogul Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. “This was our version of imagining that and putting it up on screen.”

Teyana Taylor is a sporty, sexy Mary Magdalene; David Oyelowo plays a fiery John the Baptist (who’s not afraid to use his hands); Alfre Woodard is a loving, supportive, spunky Mother Mary; and Nicholas Pinnock is a dreadlocks donning Jesus. James McAvoy plays the white Roman Pontius Pilate. With support of funny and memorable moments from RJ Cyler as Elijah and Omar Sy as Barabus, and touching times and strong acting from Anna Diop as Varenia, the dynamite cast, with too many names to list them all here, does an engaging job in telling this fictional story, inspired by the Bible.

Reeves said the film is “layered.”

“It’s so many things that can be pulled. And so for me, when you are dropped into this world. I see Black culture yesterday and Black culture today. I see our intercommunity issues in the relationship with the disciples. They had drama. They’re sitting in this space and everyone wants to be close to Jesus — everyone wants to be like him,” he said. “We can’t divorce our culture from the experience.” 

Rated PG-13, “The Book of Clarence” is open in select theaters. Check local listings for locations and showtimes.



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