Writer and director Jeymes Samuel says he has been planning The Book of Clarence since 2017. Now Jay-Z is backing the film, using the familiar historical setting of Biblical epics to highlight issues that black Americans face today.
Samuel is going back to Biblical times with an “everyman” protagonist who is a drug dealer, hustler, and con man looking to make a fast buck and realizes that this Jesus fellow sure seems to be gaining a big following. Vanity Fair says of the character:
Clarence is hustling to make ends meet, betting big on a chariot race he partakes in and dealing whatever they called hallucinogens back then. He’s impressed by the power and influence the 12 apostles have, and soon decides he wants to join their ranks, even though he doesn’t exactly believe Jesus is the Messiah.
The film’s trailer shows ancient Jerusalem with a dense African population, including Clarence. It keeps the face of Jesus obscured, so it’s unclear if Samuel will ultimately depict him as Israeli or West African. Clarence says he wants to be like Jesus (that is, having adoring fans and “power”) and tries to sell himself as a counterfeit copy.
Clarence clumsily imitates Christ’s preaching, fakes a miracle with his friend, and declares: “I am your new Messiah.” The teaser culminates with a Roman centurion challenging Clarence to walk on water to prove he’s the real deal. As cynical as this synopsis sounds, the trailer and the filmmakers hint at redemption for Clarence.
“Clarence is a person that doesn’t believe in anything outside of what’s in front of him, what he can see and hear,” Samuel told Vanity Fair. “He has a lot of inside confidence. This man is sure he could fly. He reminds me of me growing up, but unlike me, he has no outside faith.”
In one scene, Clarence is standing in what looks like the Jordan River facing actor David Oyelowo, whose character looks like John the Baptist (though Oyelowo’s role has not yet been revealed, Vanity Fair reveals John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene will appear in the film). “In spite of your selfish ways, there is a beautiful soul in there,” Oyelowo says as he places his hand to Stanfield’s chest.
Jay-Z hopes that people don’t think the film, which is set for a January 2024 release, is a “faith-based movie,” and he hopes that people don’t “immediately just focus on the religious aspect of it and not the human story”:
This story is about a young man who finds his faith through love and through wanting to become somebody in the world, which is the story of everybody. Everyone wants to find love and everyone wants to leave this place having accomplished something, having left their mark that they’ve been here and hopefully affected the world in a positive way.