Director Jeymes Samuel’s newest movie, The Book of Clarence, is not just a biblical epic but a Black biblical epic. As a proud Black person and Bible fanatic, I knew I’d need to see it.
Typically, I’m troubled when Black people are cast in movies or plays depicting historical figures when the historical figures they play were never raced as Black. I’m especially troubled by this kind of casting when the piece is set during a period of acute anti-Black racism but that issue is never centered or sung about. I’m specifically thinking of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton.
Conversely, when Black people are cast to play fictional roles that previously featured white actors, that’s cool with me: Morgan Freeman as “Red” in Shawshank Redemption; Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman in The Batman. Seeing characters who remind us of ourselves invites us into the story and encourages us to gain a deeper understanding of humanity. A barrier to experiencing such an encounter is when you never see anyone in the story who resembles you.
Samuel is well aware of this barrier. In an interview last year with Deadline, Samuel explained that he felt there had always been “a veil of non-allowance” dictating what genres Black people could or could not be in. “I feel the same with the Biblical movies,” said Samuel. “We’re not allowed to go into that era for some reason.”
Sure, Samuel’s imagining of the Bible’s New Testament-era is more fiction than fact. But the beauty of the Bible is that it exists in a generative space between fact and fiction, allowing readers to imagine themselves as part of its story. It doesn’t matter that there’s no historical evidence that Zacchaeus existed or whether he actually offered reparations; what matters is that the Bible invites me to imagine a world where both tax collectors and debtors can be saved (Luke 19). This technique for engaging scripture, according to theologian Walter Brueggemann, is a way to subvert narratives of domination and imagine what the Bible might have to say to us today.
But is Samuel’s Black, biblical fanfic ultimately successful in helping us imagine how to apply the Bible to our modern reality?
Although the movie is set in 33 C.E., the issues the movie addresses are deeply modern: occupation and colonialism, wealth and debt, and the ubiquity of public executions. Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield) — the movie’s main character and the Apostle Thomas’ twin (also played by Stanfield) — has decidedly not followed in his brother’s holy footsteps and, instead, is something of a dude from around the way. Clarence sells and smokes weed, goes clubbing, gambles, and races (chariots!) in the streets of Jerusalem. It’s this last activity that gets him into a bind with a local gangster, Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). After Clarence wrecks the chariot that Jedediah loaned out to him, he demands that Clarence pay him back for his lost asset. If Clarence fails to pay, he’ll be crucified.
Minor spoilers ahead
To avoid the cross, Clarence comes up with a half-baked scheme that seems like a lightbulb moment to him but will surely have audiences considering the fate of others who’ve made similar claims: Clarence decides to throw his gabardine into the messiah conversation. Clarence’s claim of messiahship makes him feel like a somebody, but more importantly, at least to him, he starts to rake in the denarii as throngs of disciples flock to him, eager to financially support his mission.
But Clarence is no (Black) messiah. Clarence, an atheist, manages to sound as cynical as a prosperity gospel preacher when he tells his followers: “You give to the Romans, now give to the lord.”
In our time, we have millionaire preachers like Creflo Dollar; during the Bible’s time, Samuel gives us a character we might call Clarence Denarii.
But something abruptly changes for Clarence after a scene that is both existential and penitential — emphasized by a long shot focused on Stanfield’s piercing gaze. To describe the scene using the language of the Bible, Clarence comes to himself and asks, “Who am I? What have I become?”
Clarence’s searing self-realization doesn’t just stop there, it extends beyond the individual realm and into the political. Rather than using his riches to pay off his debts, he uses the money to do something Jesus never did during his ministry: He literally sets slaves free.
Whether it’s the ill-treatment of the enslaved or Roman centurions sweeping the streets, Samuel’s portrayal of the Roman Empire’s social dynamics hits a relevant chord (this is thanks, in no small part, to stellar performances by Tom Glynn-Carney and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor who feature as Roman soldiers). Theologian M. Shawn Copeland notes in Enfleshing Freedom that Rome’s military used intimidation tactics and brutality to maintain control — a historical fact that The Book of Clarence does well to depict.
When Rome decides to crack down on the messianic industrial complex, a changed Clarence is arrested in the roundup, generating an eerie feeling of déjà vu. I wasn’t just reminded of Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane and an overeager Peter trying to slash and dash his way out of a jam (Matthew 16:47-56). The scene brought to memory the many encounters with police in the U.S. that end with someone being executed in public.
Rome loved its public executions. They’d nail some poor crook to a cross and display them in a public area in a bid to quell rebellions before they started. “The cross reflects the lengths that unscrupulous power will go to sustain itself,” writes theologian Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas in Stand Your Ground. “The cross reflects power’s refusal to give up its grip on the lives of others.” Arrested, standing before Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy), Clarence now finds himself in that grip.
Not wanting to ruin the grand finale, and yet still wanting to offer some conclusion, I’ll say that I walked away from The Book of Clarence with a renewed faith. I don’t mean to suggest that I have a renewed faith in God or Christianity, as such a renewal would demand nothing less than the literal resurrection of those who’ve been crucified in our era — Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, Oscar Grant, Manny Ellis, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Jordan Davis, et al. But The Book of Clarence renewed my faith that the Bible still has something to say to us today.