Review: ‘The Book of Clarence’ (2024), starring LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard and James McAvoy

January 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

James McAvoy (far left) and LaKeith Stanfield (second from right) in “The Book of Clarence” (Photo by Moris Puccio/Legendary Entertainment/TriStar Pictures)

“The Book of Clarence” (2024)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in 33 .A.D., in an alternate version of Jerusalem, the comedy film “The Book of Clarence” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An atheist rogue, who is heavily in debt, pretends to a miracle worker to con people out of money, much to the chagrin of his identical twin brother, who is a follower of Jesus Christ.

Culture Audience: “The Book of Clarence” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s headliners and people expecting a witty satire of Christianity and racism, but they won’t get much wit in this movie.

LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy and R.J. Cyler in “The Book of Clarence” (Photo by Moris Puccio/Legendary Entertainment/TriStar Pictures)

“The Book of Clarence” is writer/director Jeymes Samuel’s attempt to make a religious satire like classics from Monty Python or Mel Brooks. But it’s a muddled mess where the best jokes aren’t very amusing. A talented cast cannot save this dull flop. “The Book of Clarence” also lazily panders to unnecessary negative and over-used stereotypes that do nothing substantial for the story.

The best religious satires are those where audience members don’t have to know much about religion to enjoy the satire, because the story and the characters speak to larger issues about humanity and social structures. That’s one of the failings of “The Book of Clarence,” which relies too heavily on comedy where viewers need to have better-than-average knowledge of Judeo-Christian teachings to understand some of these movie’s intended messages.

Another big problem with “The Book of Clarence” is that it goes back and forth between lampooning Christianity and skewering racial oppression of black people, but the movie often loses focus and ends up not saying much at all. There are chase scenes in the movie that are meaningless. Major characters from the Bible are reduced to making shallow appearances, when their characters could have been developed in an impactful way.

In “The Book of Clarence” (which takes place in 33 A.D. in Jerusalem), Clarence (played by LaKeith Stanfield) is an unemployed loser who doesn’t do much with his life but commit petty theft, gamble, and sell and smoke marijuana with his best friend Elijah (played by RJ Cyler), who is a stereotypical stoner sidekick. Black men who use drugs and are involved in criminal activities? What a stupid, unoriginal and overused stereotype in movies.

The movie opens by showing several men in with their hands and feet nailed to crucifixes. Clarence is one of the men. A man who looks like the usual portrayal of Jesus Christ is another one. “The Book of Clarence” circles back to this scene toward the end of the movie, after it’s been shown how Clarence ended up on this crucifix. It’s a long and disjointed slog to get to that point, filled with cringeworthy dialogue and unfunny “jokes” that make everyone look like idiots.

In one of the movie’s early scenes Clarence and Elijah are in a chariot, and they are racing against Mary Magdalene (played by Teyana Taylor) in another chariot. Clarence and Elijah both get shot with darts and fall out of their chariots. Mary Magdalene then races off and isn’t seen again until after a long time-wasting stretch of the movie. It’s an example of some of many pointless scenes in “The Book of Clarence.”

Clarence is heavily in debt to a local thug named Jedediah the Terrible (played by Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who has given Clarence a deadline of 30 days to pay his debt. Meanwhile, atheist Clarence is bothered by the fact that his estranged identical twin Thomas (also played by Stanfield) has become a follower of a self-proclaimed Son of God named Jesus Christ (played by Nicholas Pinnock), who has amassed a growing number of followers but also detractors. Jesus keeps his face hidden under a hood until a “face reveal” that’s supposed to be suspenseful but is anti-climactic.

Clarence still lives with his loving and compassionate mother Amina (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste), because he is too financially broke to afford his own place. Amina is heartbroken that her only children are feuding with each other. Meanwhile, Clarence is dealing with his own heartbreak issues, because he’s pining for a beautiful woman named Varinia (played by Anna Diop), whom Clarence thinks is out of his league. Varinia also happens to be the sister of Jedediah.

Roman Empire officials are the story’s racist oppressors in “The Book of Clarence,” which has scenes that are obvious parallels to how racist modern-day police treat black men. Clarence and Elijah are minding their own business on a street when they get stopped and harassed by Roman law enforcement saying that Clarence and Elijah “fit the description” of two wanted criminals. Clarence and Elijah have multiple run-ins with a sadistic Roman named Decimus (played by Tom Glynn-Carney), who takes pleasure in targeting people who aren’t white.

When he’s not being racially profiled by white Romans, Clarence is being hunted by Jedediah and his goons, with Elijah as his drug-addled wing man. Clarence thinks up a scheme to get the money that he owes to Jedidiah: He pretends to be a Jesus disciple who can perform miracles, in order to con people out of money. “The Book of Clarence” is basically a ripoff of the 1995 stoner comedy “Friday” (starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker), wrapped in the guise of a religious satire.

John the Baptist (played by David Oyelowo) sees through Clarence’s fake religiousness when Clarence asks John to baptize him. Other characters in the movie that are based on biblical characters are the Virgin Mary (played by Alfre Woodard); Judas Iscariot (played by Micheal Ward); Barabbas (played by Omar Sy); and Pontius Pilate (played by James McAvoy). One of the few white people in the movie who isn’t portrayed as evil is Benjamin (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a dirty homeless beggar, who gets a makeover that is supposed to be a symbol of “whitewashed” rewriting of history.

“The Book of Clarence” isn’t a cohesive story. It’s just a bunch of poorly conceived sketches that are strung together with bibilical references. Many of the plot developments go nowhere. The acting performances are mostly mediocre or just plain awful. Clarence’s relationships, such as those with his twin Thomas and his would-be love interest Varinia, are boring and hollow, when they should be among the most interesting aspects of the story. Here’s an example of the movie’s moronic dialogue: Clarence says to Varinia: “I am spirit over sandals in love with you.”

The movie is capable of maybe eliciting some mild chuckles from viewers, but mostly the plot just goes around in circles, and then tries to wrap things up in a sentimental way that is unearned and phony, considering how cutting-edge this comedy want to be. Worst of all, “The Book of Clarence” is pretending to be a provocative and clever satire, when it’s really just a witless stoner movie. In that sense, this disappointing dud is just like the movie’s namesake Clarence: a sham wanting more respect and glory than what is deserved.

TriStar Pictures released “The Book of Clarence” in U.S. cinemas on January 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Blue Story,’ starring Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Micheal Ward and Stephen Odubola in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Blue Story”

Directed by Rapman

Culture Representation: Taking place in southeast London, the drama “Blue Story” has an almost all-black cast representing the working-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: Two longtime best friends from school end up becoming bitter enemies in a gang war.

Culture Audience: “Blue Story” will appeal mostly to people who like gangster stories to have a high level of emotional drama as motivation for the brutal violence.

Stephen Odubola (center) and Khali Best (far right) in “Blue Story” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Movies about black gang members have primarily been the domain of American filmmakers, but the British film “Blue Story” (written and directed by Rapman) takes an unflinching look at gangster life from the perspective of young black men living in southeast London. Although there are many similarities in how black gangs are portrayed in American and British films, there are some noticeable differences. For starters, there’s less use of the “n” word in British films. And because British police do not carry guns, tales of black men being gunned down by police are far less prevalent in the United Kingdom as they are in the Untied States.

At the heart of “Blue Story” is the relationship between Timmy (played as teenager and adult by Stephen Odubola) and Marco (played as a teenager and adult by Micheal Ward), who first meet when they are 11 years old. Timmy is a “good boy” from Lewisham who has reluctantly transferred to a school in Peckham called Borough High. His mother has enrolled him in the school because she thinks it’s a better academic environment for him and because she wants Timmy to get away from a friend called Kiron, whom she thinks is a bad influence on Timmy.

On his first day at his new school, Timmy is rescued from a schoolyard fight by “bad boy” Marco, who steps in to protect Timmy. It begins a friendship that’s so close that Marco and Timmy are practically inseparable and they have a brotherly bond. By the time they are teenagers, Timmy is doing well academically, but Marco is a delinquent student who’s in danger of being expelled for failing grades. Timmy offers to help by doing Marco’s homework for him.

There’s a fierce rivalry between the gangs of Lewisham and Peckham (the movie portrays a lot of this real-life tension), which often results in violence with guns, knives and other weapons. Timmy (who’s an only child) and Marco frequently encounter Peckham gang members when they’re close by their school. Peckham is often referred to by the nicknames Vietnarm, Pecknarm or Narm, because of the war-like violence in the area. Timmy’s loyalty is constantly questioned by these gang members, who are suspicious since he doesn’t live in the area, but Marco is usually there to step in and protect Timmy from being attacked.

Two other boys who hang out with Timmy and Marco are bratty Dwayne (played by Rohan Nedd) and plus-sized Hakeem (played by Kadeem Ramsay), who live on the edge of gang activity. They aren’t Peckham gang members, but they do what they can to make it look like they’re on the gang members’ side, when push comes to shove.

However, Marco has real connections to the Peckham gang: His older brother Switcher (played by Eric Kofi-Abrefa) is a high-ranking member of the gang, which gives Marco and his friends a certain level of protection (or danger), depending on which gang territory they’re in at at the time. A protégé of an experienced and influential gang member is called a “younger.” Marco hasn’t become a full-fledged gang member yet, but he’s considered to be Switcher’s inevitable “younger.”

Although there is a constant threat of gang violence, the teenagers are also preoccupied with dating. Timmy has a crush on a fellow student named Leah (played by Karla-Simone Spence), but so does Dwayne. However, Dwayne sees Leah as more of a sexual conquest, while Timmy wants to have a real romance with Leah. Timmy’s friends tease him about his shy and romantic nature, but he takes the taunting all in good stride.

When Leah invites the four friends to a house party that she’s hosting, they all eagerly accept the invitation. Dwayne makes the first moves on Leah at the party, but she’s more interested in Timmy, and she asks him to dance. They have an instant connection, which leads to them dating and falling deeply in love with each other.

Around this time, Timmy runs into his former school friend Kiron (played by Khali Best), who now goes by the street name Killy. Timmy and Killy are happy to see each other, but Killy is part of the rival gang that clashes with Switcher’s gang. Marco is very suspicious and uncomfortable with Timmy’s friendliness to Killy, but Timmy swears his undying loyalty to Marco. Timmy tells Marco that he’s only nice to Killy because Timmy and Killy knew each other when they were kids. But that was in the past, and Timmy reassures Marco that Marco is still his best friend.

Meanwhile, a vicious gang fight breaks out between Switcher’s gang and the rival gang, which is led by a ruthless thug named Madder (played by Junior Afolabi Salokun). During the fight, Switcher deliberately guns down someone in Madder’s gang named Gyalis (played by Andre Dwayne), who was Madder’s younger. In a panic, Switcher goes back home and asks Marco to be his alibi. The murder of Gyalis sets off a chain of events that leads to violent acts of revenge, more tragedy, and the souring of Timmy and Marco’s longtime friendship.

In an overabundance of movies and TV shows that portray black men as criminals, “Blue Story” sets itself apart by having well-developed characters and believable acting that give this story more depth than the run-of-the-mill gangster film. The motivations for the revenge violence in this story isn’t about greed but more about personal loyalties, however misguided those loyalties might be.

“Blue Story” is the feature-film directorial debut of Rapman (whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu), who shows that he has talent for weaving together a cohesive story involving various characters caught up in dangerous and complex situations. “Blue Story” was clearly influenced by writer/director John Singleton’s 1991 debut film “Boyz N the Hood” (set in South Central Los Angeles), another coming-of-age drama about young black men affected by gang violence. Although “Blue Story” won’t be an Oscar-nominated classic like “Boyz N the Hood,” it compellingly addresses the deep-rooted problems behind gang violence in London.

“Blue Story” also has a unique narration technique, by having Rapman occasionally appear on screen to rap some of the movie’s plot. (Before he became a movie director, Rapman was also a rapper who conceived and directed the three-part YouTube musical drama series “Shiro’s Story,” which led to him making “Blue Story.”) This one-man rap chorus doesn’t come across as an annoying gimmick, mostly because the lyrics are on point, and Rapman’s screen time only takes up a few minutes of the movie.

There are some elements of “Blue Story” that are like a soap opera—not in a overly melodramatic way or in a way that’s too exploitative, but in a way that shows that the cycle of gang violence will keep going as long as revenge is a motivation. Yes, the violence is brutal, but the message of the movie is that gang culture is built on a false sense of pride and nobility. After all, there’s nothing noble about being locked up in prison or dying for crimes that end up destroying friendships and lives.

Paramount Pictures/Paramount Home Entertainment released “Blue Story” in the U.S. on digital and VOD on May 5, 2020. The film was already released in the U.K. in 2019.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix