THE STORY – A down-on-his-luck man embarks on a misguided attempt to capitalize on the rise of celebrity and the influence of the Messiah for his own personal gain.
THE CAST – LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Caleb McLaughlin, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Alfre Woodard, Marianne Jean-Baptiste & Jacobi Howard
THE TEAM – Jeymes Samuel (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 126 Minutes
As far as first features go, “The Harder They Fall” was quite the calling card for director Jeymes Samuel. With a top-tier cast, a blistering soundtrack, and a kinetic energy that gleefully lit a stick of dynamite under the western genre, the film came out of nowhere to be the kind of Netflix movie you wish they didn’t just dump on streaming and move on. Nevertheless, with its gallant, genre-bending energy, “The Harder They Fall” represented a bright, bold, new voice in Jeymes Samuel, showcasing reverence to a classic genre while ready and willing to rip it a new one. However, with the pressure now on, could this relative rookie filmmaker pull the trick off again and bring the same energy to the biblical epic he did to the western?
Jerusalem, AD33. With no real religious proclivity and seemingly unmoved by Jesus Christ’s message of peace and brotherly love, down-on-his-luck Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) sees the perfect opportunity to take advantage of a nascent celebrity culture, embarking on a misguided attempt to cash in on the rising influence of the Messiah. But, with stakes far higher than he ever thought possible, how heavy a toll will such transgressions take on his eternal soul?
It truly is astonishing that “The Book of Clarence” marks only Jeymes Samuel’s second feature, which arrived just two years after his first. Doubling down on the hyperkinetic energy of “The Harder They Fall,” Samuel has, in such a short time, shown himself to be one of the most promising mainstream filmmakers around. Seemingly on a one-person mission to revitalize Hollywood’s oldest and dustiest genres for a new generation and audience, Samuel brings the same approach to the table with “The Book of Clarence” that he did with its predecessor. Without skipping a beat, and despite a complete switch of setting and genre, we’re immediately transported back to the same stylish universe of “The Harder They Fall,” so while there are clear deviations in narrative going on, it’s safe to say that if you vibed with what Samuel had to offer before, you almost certainly will again here.
Filled with style and energy to burn, “The Book of Clarence” is a wild, highly ambitious ride that takes the scale and scope of the classic biblical epic, drops in a heavy dose of “The Life of Brian”-esque satirical comedy, and sets the entire thing ablaze. It’s a righteous, riotous trip that sees writer-director-producer-composer Samuel swinging for the fences with a heady, head-spinning mash-up of styles and tones. Throwing everything it’s got out there, with such a blistering mix of distinct filmmaking choices and tonal shifts, “The Book of Clarence” does, on occasion, find it difficult to strike the right balance between its constituent parts. That said, you’ve got to love when a filmmaker is unwaveringly unafraid to take a punt, and boy, does Samuel take his fair share of punts here.
Blending high-octane action, flashy music video aesthetics, surrealism, and just about every trick in between, “The Book of Clarence” has an awful lot going on. Despite not all these swings connecting, most knock it out of the park. With an evident respect for the genre, yet fully aware of its limited appeal to modern audiences, Samuel takes iconography and many common narrative elements of the sword-and-sandals classics and douses them all in a heightened level of modernity that has no right to work as well as it does. As revered as it is, it’s fair to say the biblical epic is one of the creakier film genres out there, one that rarely works in this day and age, so it’s no mean feat to revamp it for a modern audience successfully, however, “The Book of Clarence” does just that. The result bounces from slapstick comedy to hard-hitting social commentary to satire to bruising action in the blink of an eye, breathing new life into a long-dormant genre without losing sight of what made it appealing in the first place.
Pumped along by a banging needle-drop soundtrack (composed by Jeymes Samuel himself) and given life by some gloriously breakneck editing, much of the film’s overtly modern aesthetics are about as far removed from biblical classics like “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments” as you can possibly get, yet, just as much of “The Book of Clarence” feels like a true resurrection of its ancestors. What does, however, allow Samuel’s film to stand out from what came before is its cast and strikingly contemporary themes.
The optics of a majority Black cast in a huge Hollywood biblical tale cannot, and frankly should not, be ignored, as Samuel uses the talent at his disposal to pitch a thoroughly modern and highly pertinent take on a tale that’s been told one particular way for so long. With overtly contemporary political overtones weaved into a timeless narrative, Samuel has truly stamped his mark on this very white, old-fashioned, conservative genre, which will surely outrage all the (far) right people.
Of the cast, LaKeith Stanfield builds on his impressive body of work to deliver a performance showcasing his entire range while proving himself more than worthy to be considered leading man material. Asked to do an awful lot by the script’s tonal chaos, he offers a degree of humor that has always been present in his work, yet shows himself entirely unafraid to deliver drama and an emotional gut-punch when necessary, as he’s asked to provide both physical comedy and the kind of dramatic gravitas that you can only get from a biblical epic. Although their filmic relationship is a budding one, it’s clear Samuel has found his muse in Stanfield, and, as with “The Harder They Fall,” the director has surrounded him with a genuinely epic ensemble.
Outside of Stanfield, Omar Sy is the film’s true standout in a role that, despite lacking a decent chunk of screen time, nevertheless allows him to steal every scene he’s in. For an actor who has spent so long in the background, this will, along with his starring role in Netflix’s “Lupin,” hopefully, give Sy the platform to do big things moving forward. It’s also a performance that bounces off the cast around him wonderfully, and whether it’s big names like David Oyelowo and Alfre Woodard, or cheeky cameo appearances by James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch, both Sy and Stanfield truly shine amidst one of the strongest casts of the year.
Bombastic and fearless, there’s a palpable buzz to “The Book of Clarence” that’s quite unlike any historical epic before it. It’s a fresh, invigorating fuel that allows the film to ride through its rough patches without losing much momentum at all, and while it is a little too long and suffers pacing issues in parts, the sheer balls-out vivacity of it all pulls it through. Allowing his enviable cast the platform to shine, Samuel loads his film with so much style and bravura it’s impossible to resist. With a hint of Cecil B. DeMille, a dollop of Tarantino, and a sprinkling of Spike Lee throughout, the film’s editing and action are an absolute blast from start to finish, as the director throws in tricks and flourishes with gleeful abandon.
“The Book of Clarence” is quite a statement to make in just your second feature. While the film doesn’t exactly push any boundaries story-wise, Samuel has produced something truly revolutionary in its own right. Please make no mistake: from the excellent cast to the style to its zeitgeist-capturing energy, this film has all the markings of a hit, one that hopefully continues the talented filmmaker’s path to even bigger things. Although it gets a little too high on its own style at times, “The Book of Clarence” overcomes its chaotic approach and plot stumbles with a kinetic vibrancy like no biblical epic you’ve ever seen. Under Jeymes Samuel’s unique direction, “The Book of Clarence” is a bold and daring tale that sets its genre ablaze before dragging it kicking and screaming into a new era.