What do you get when you cross George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton? Maybe something like Jeymes Samuel’s The Book of Clarence?
Musical comedies about Jesus belong to a fairly exclusive movie genre. Samuel’s latest offering will therefore remind many viewers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, if only because Bible-themed comedies are so rare. Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar have the music but not the humor. The musical comedy-drama starring LaKeith Stanfield in the title role turns Life of Brian on its head. Whereas the Pythons give audiences a protagonist who is mistakenly identified as the Anointed One with all the hijinks that ensue, Clarence is on the make, witnessing the success of Jesus’s ministry and deciding he wants a piece of the messianic action so that he can settle his debts with a local gangster. When Jesus’s disciples mock his attempt to become the thirteenth apostle, Clarence decides to strike out on his own.
Instead of Life of Brian, my thoughts turned to another movie released the same year. Hal Ashby’s Being There also appeared in 1979 and stars Peter Sellers as a simple-minded gardener named Chance. Events take a surreal twist at the film’s conclusion, with Chance walking across the surface of a lake and toward the horizon. It is an odd ending, given that nothing else suggests that Chance is intended as a kind of Christ figure. Yet there is a deeper sense in which Chance plays a role more commonly filled by Jesus. Specifically, the other characters in the film consistently project their own concerns and values onto the enigmatic gardener. Because he is so taciturn in response to their various questions, they take his banal responses as the oracular pronouncements of a sage or savant. In reality, they hear more or less what they want to hear.
That Jesus has served as a mirror of sorts with respect to politics, popular culture, and the arts has been recognized for a long time. Decades before he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work with lepers in Africa, Albert Schweitzer wrote a dry tome of biblical scholarship titled The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in German in 1906 but quickly translated into English. Schweitzer noticed a trend, namely, that when scholars wrote ostensibly objective, historically rigorous biographies of Jesus, they usually revealed more about the author than about Mary’s son.
Curiously, when a German rationalist or a Victorian gentleman or a French Romantic writes about Jesus, he looks and sounds a lot like a German rationalist or a Victorian gentleman or a French Romantic. Thomas Jefferson used a straight razor to produce an edition of the Gospels from which he had excised every miraculous and supernatural element and highlighted the moral teachings—until all that remained was a savior closely resembling Jefferson the Deist. George Tyrell quipped that, when it comes to Jesus-questers, there is a habit of gazing down the long well of history and, unwittingly, seeing one’s own face reflected at the bottom. Twenty-first-century conservatives, progressives, Marxists, capitalists, feminists, anti-imperialists, within academia and without—we exhibit the same selective tendency to project our own ideals and preoccupations onto Jesus. In the words of Henry J. Cadbury, “We so easily assume our own approach is the right one, and therefore that a person of Jesus’ insight must have shared it.”
To return to The Book of Clarence: in what ways has Jeymes Samuel given us a Clarence in our own image? It is always easier, of course, to recognize cultural artifacts as products of their time and place long after the fact. Nevertheless, a few things stand out.
First and most obvious, there is the matter of race. Literally, of course, the director is of Nigerian and Afro-Brazilian descent, and his Jesus is Black. Robert Powell’s pale, blue-eyed Galilean in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) probably bears little resemblance to the Jesus of history. By the same token, the dark skin and African features of the nearly all-Black cast in The Book of Clarence do not reflect the physical profile of most residents of first-century Jerusalem. This is not the first Black Jesus to appear on screen, nor is it the first time the trope has been played for laughs, as fans of the 1970s sitcom Good Times may recall. Concerns about the ethics of representation have led to more roles for non-white actors in a wide range of movies even before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences set quotas for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups as a condition for being nominated for Best Picture Oscar. This may partly explain why a majority of Americans estimate that Blacks constitute a much larger percentage of the U.S. population than the approximately 13% reported in the 2020 Census.
There is a venerable tradition of retelling familiar stories such as those from Shakespeare with the races swapped. The trend has become more common over the last few decades. Television, film, and young adult fiction are replete with examples that reimagine well-known works with a Black cast or characters. Sometimes the device brings out previously unrecognized resonances in a work, and sometimes it is little more than a gimmick. The Book of Clarence does not seem as subversive on this score as one might expect. Perhaps we are simply acclimated by now to such race-reversing reboots.
Race here makes little difference to the plot or characters unless one is already familiar with the concept of systemic racism. Clarence becomes a victim of an unjust system run by the Romans, the only white characters in the film. What bothers them most about Jesus, according to Pontius Pilate, is that he preaches a message of equality. A pivotal moment comes when an Aryan-looking centurion attacks Clarence’s bodyguard, a scene clearly intended to evoke associations with modern instances of police brutality. His mother’s lament after he is arrested—“They always take our babies!”—aims for the same effect.
The extent to which the Romans should be considered white is not as straightforward as one might think, insofar as “Romans,” especially in the imperial period, could be from almost anywhere around the Mediterranean, including Africa. Samuel might be pleased to learn that Plautus, one of the most celebrated comedic playwrights writing in Latin, was an African and said to be of dark complexion.
Even the “Romans” from near Rome have descendants—we call them Italians—who were not considered “white” by the Anglo-American majority when they first immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Whether Jews should be considered or consider themselves white is likewise more complicated than many people assume, as recent debates about the application of anti-discrimination laws have revealed. Incidentally, Jews are completely absent from The Book of Clarence. In some sense, then, the film reflects many of our own confusions and contradictions when it comes to race. Many of our assumptions in this regard have not held steady in the past and may yet look antiquated to viewers in the future.
Apart from his race, two other aspects of Clarence’s character similarly reflect contemporary sensibilities: he is an avowed atheist and an avid drug user. It seems apt that at a time when the “nones” professing allegiance to no religious tradition are multiplying, Hollywood would send a savior who does not believe in God. Clarence makes no secret of his skepticism. “Knowledge is stronger than belief” is the mantra he repeats over and over. The film’s funniest scene comes when he visits Mary and Joseph to learn how Jesus performs his “tricks” and is scolded for his disbelief. When Mary yells at him, it is entertaining, but other believers, like the crowd eager to stone the woman caught in adultery, mostly come across as arrogant and judgmental. Jesus’s final words in this story from the Gospel of John—“Go and sin no more”—are omitted in the film.
Clarence not only smokes pot; selling it is his day job before embarking on his career as a messiah. A drug dealer with a heart of gold, he just wants to take care of his widowed mother and avoid being a “nobody.” Amidst oft-repeated claims that prisons are overpopulated with individuals guilty of nothing more than minor drug-related offenses, along with successful campaigns for the legalization of marijuana as well as the mainstreaming of cannabis products, it is not surprising for Clarence to be put forward as a sympathetic character despite or perhaps on account of his fondness for “unholy herbs,” as one character describes it.
One is tempted to quote Hebrews 4:15, where it is said that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” because humans need a savior who can “sympathize with our weaknesses.” With the growing popularity of cannabis dispensaries and “microdosing” of LSD, it seems that fewer Americans see recreational drug use as a weakness, much less a sin. As the effects of decriminalization are better understood, attitudes could conceivably change. Clarence and his joint-rolling sidekick may come to seem either quaint in their mischief-making or else problematic for trivializing a destructive social pathology. It is too soon to tell. A more daring directorial move would have been to portray not Clarence but Jesus himself smoking, but Samuel does not go there.
While Samuel is generous with social commentary, apart from Clarence’s atheism, theology is thin on the ground for a Bible movie. If there is a theological current running through the film, it takes the form of a shallow Gnosticism. It is not Gnostic in the sense in which the term is often used today, that is, to refer to an ideology that denigrates the natural order or regards embodied existence as something to be transcended, rejected, or escaped. Rather, The Book of Clarence manifests a more literal breed of Gnostic thought that regards knowledge (gnosis) as the source of salvation.
The second-century Gospel of Thomas is usually regarded as the earliest source for this orientation in Christian circles. Purporting to be a collection of Jesus’s sayings, the opening lines announce that “whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.” Wherever right understanding is the secret to conquering death, the fundamental human defect is ignorance, not sin. “We need enlightenment, not punishment,” Clarence cries out at one point, as he comes to terms with his state of arrested development: “I am a victim of my own ignorance!” This closely echoes a remark made by the influential Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh in a 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr.
By the end, the gnosis that Clarence achieves is that he is not a “nobody” but a “somebody.” He has acquired faith, if only faith in himself, whatever that may mean. Earlier in the film Clarence pokes fun at his twin brother Thomas for “that gospel” he is writing. Ultimately, it is implied that he is the one to understand what it means for the kingdom of God to be inside of himself, again to paraphrase the Gospel of Thomas.
References to noncanonical texts are unusual in Jesus films but not without precedent. The 1955 film The Silver Chalice is loosely based on portions of the apocryphal Acts of Peter and stars a young Paul Newman as Basil, a master silversmith. Luke the evangelist commissions Basil to craft a beautiful chalice to protect the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. When Basil balks at the notion of Christians placing value on art, Luke says that Christians can change their minds: “Why, every Christian you meet is a man who’s changed his mind or else he wouldn’t be a Christian.”
Clarence’s love interest declares, “I don’t believe in change, I believe in growth.” Does Clarence change, or does he simply grow more fully into the person he has always been? Does he come to faith in something or someone other than himself? Without revealing too much about the ambiguous ending, there may be a glimmer of hope in this otherwise dark comedy.