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[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for The Book of Clarence.]
The Book of Clarence
Written and Directed by Jeymes Samuel
Produced by Jeymes Samuel, Jay-Z, James Lassiter, Tendo Nagenda
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, R. J. Cyler, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Alfre Woodard, Teyana Taylor,
Caleb McLaughlin, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, James McAvoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch
(TriStar Pictures, 2024)
Feature Film, Rated PG–13
The Book of Clarence seeks to retell and allegorize the story of Jesus the Messiah in a redacted first-century context while employing five main sources: the Bible,1 the Infancy Gospel of Thomas,2 the Gospel of Thomas,3 the Gospel of Judas,4 the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene),5 and Black Hebrew Israelite philosophy.6 In this account, Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) and the twelve apostles are all portrayed by and interpreted as Black men. The Israelites7 are depicted and construed in the same manner with minor exceptions. Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), who serves as the main character and is accompanied by his faithful friend Elijah (R. J. Cyler), is a socio-economically disadvantaged Jewish Black man living in the oppressive context of Palestine under the rule of Caucasian Romans. The author and producers of this film appear to have intentionally cast and depicted all of the Romans as “White/Caucasian” individuals in order to convey an underlying message: the Caucasian Roman is a violent, relentless, uncaring, yet fearful and secretly weak, oppressing murderer.
Clarence is in love with Varinia (Anna Diop), the sister of Jedediah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa). However, as a Black Jewish man,8 he is not good enough for either her expectations or the standards of others among his own ethnic people group. Indeed, the sole reason for Clarence’s indebtedness to Jedediah the Terrible is that Varinia believes Clarence is an unmotivated underachiever who fails to measure up to his potential and her standards.9 Having lost the finances he borrowed to accomplish a higher status and socially acceptable recognition through a rigged chariot race, Clarence traverses through a series of hustles to acquire the means to settle his debt; each is unsuccessful.
While imbibing a not-so-first-century foreign substance that alters the mind, Clarence has an idea that will later prove to have been enlightenment. He will become the thirteenth apostle of Jesus, although he is clear that he does not believe in God or believe that Jesus is legitimately the Messiah. His façade is immediately met with disbelief and rejection by the apostles, especially Peter (Jacobi Howard), Judas (Michael Ward), and his own twin brother Thomas (also portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield). Judas takes the lead and suggests a task that will demonstrate Clarence’s authentic commitment to the apostolic band:10 free the oppressed slaves who are fighting11 and dying as gladiators.12 Clarence accepts the challenge and kindly requests the freedom of all the slaves. The owner of the slaves, Asher the Torturer (Babs Olusanmokun), who is a Black Jewish man in partial “white face,”13 meets him with opposition. However, he offers him a false opportunity to free all the slaves if Clarence can defeat his star gladiator Barabbas (Omar Sy), who believes he is immortal. Shockingly, Clarence defeats Barabbas — but spares his life. Yet Asher the Torturer refuses to honor his promise to free all the slaves; he will allow Clarence to free only the slave whose life he spared, namely Barabbas. The intentional underlying message suggests that no matter how a Black, oppressed man plays the game, it is structured so that it is hard to win and ultimately cannot be won, even when fought well. When one appears to have beaten his opponent and the system, those in power will never keep their word. A few may appear to have been freed, but not everyone. Allowing one to escape the gladiatorial chamber of oppression leading to death should be currency to turn one’s back while others remain in oppression and rejoice that few escape.
The freed slave Barabbas pledges lifelong allegiance to Clarence as his Black king, who returns to the apostles/disciples to report his partial success. Although Judas celebrates him, Clarence is rejected once again by the disciples at large and has a confrontation with his twin brother Thomas who reproaches him for his constant chicanery. Clarence mutually confronts his brother, who has abandoned his mother and family to follow, in his estimation, a fake messiah; he perceives Jesus’ disciples to be liars and fools who lack insight and enlightenment but are quick to believe. The film depicts Blacks/oppressed people who follow Jesus and fail to liberate those who are oppressed as fools and liars who abandon their families for worthless belief in a fake and irrelevant Savior who is out of touch with the real needs of those engaged in the struggle.
Clarence has another moment of enlightenment; he will become the new messiah! He will replicate Jesus’ tricks and words. The underlying assertion is that the classic Christ of Christianity and his followers are all talk and full of tricks that fail to genuinely liberate the oppressed. In fact, they prey upon the oppressed providing false hope. Clarence undertakes research for his ploy by interviewing Mary (Alfre Woodard) and Joseph (Brian Bovell). Mary affirms that Jesus’ birth was by virginal conception and his miracles are legitimate. She offers proof of his legitimacy by citing an incident from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (The film relies heavily on the second-century Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, subtly arguing for their legitimacy over the trustworthiness of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) Clarence is disappointed; his interview has yielded no results, and Mary and Joseph believe what Jesus is peddling. However, Clarence will proceed as planned. Elijah will play the roles necessary to garner the trust of the gullible crowds by feigning blindness, lameness, and death; in each case, Clarence will emerge the healer/hero and mystic guru. (The underlying statement is clear: only gullible, thoughtless people believe in a Jesus who did genuine miracles.) The plan works. The finances are flowing, the debt to Jedediah the Terrible can be paid, and Varinia’s devotion is won.
But a glitch occurs. Elijah discovers that Jesus has genuine power evinced by his rescue of Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), who was accused of having intimacy with the oppressive White Romans. A sin for which she should die.
A second glitch occurs. Clarence cares about the oppressed slaves he once sought to free. He chooses to forgo settling his own debt and buys the freedom of all the slaves. Although noble, this will not satisfy the debt owed to Jedediah the Terrible, who sees through the scam. Clarence will have to pay by death. The message conveyed here is that a true messiah acts to liberate those who are oppressed — to his own cost, even if this means his life. An intentional contrast is intended; the one considered the actual Messiah has failed to free Black, oppressed victims of the white system that enslaves them. Moreover, it enrolls Blacks as disciples requiring them to forsake their families and never provides the freedom it promises.
The Romans (Caucasian oppressors) are seeking to rid Palestine of the problematic messianic figures who offer hope and threaten insurgence. This includes Clarence as well Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch), who was socially liberated by Jesus, who empowered Benjamin financially.14 The Romans are prepared to murder each of the Black liberators, as they have many of the Black children (as well as an occasional Caucasian child), because they are ultimately afraid of strong Black kings (Clarence) and immortals (Barabbas) who they cannot defeat. Jedediah the Terrible doesn’t want Clarence alive; however, the White Roman oppressors cannot have him. (This state of affairs shrewdly makes the argument that we may financially enslave, fail to forgive, intimidate, and kill our own Black men; however, the White oppressors may not — that is where we draw the line and stand together against them and await a convenient time to continue our harmful actions toward one another.) However, the solidarity quickly abates as Varinia’s life is threatened.
Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) holds Clarence’s trial and promises to free him if he miraculously walks on water. To everyone’s surprise (including Clarence’s), he is fully enlightened and is enabled to do so. This is no trick, as demonstrated by the non-buoyant, Caucasian Romans who attempt the same. Contrary to his word, Pilate must kill Clarence now! There is an inner-narrative theme at play here. Asher the Torturer (Babs Olusanmokun), who wore a partial white face, posed a situation that could not be won in his estimation, just as Pilate (James McAvoy) did. However, Clarence won each battle but failed to win the war in a fixed system built by Whites and employed by Blacks who enslaved their own. No Black beats the system, and if he threatens to do so, he must die.
Clarence bears his stake to his destination of death in full view of the religious leaders. The religious leaders appear smug and unmoved while in regal, religious dress. They say nothing concerning the plight of Clarence. The narrative clearly paints them in this way to make them aloof, happy to keep their unchallenged power, standing as antiquated religious relics though breathing. They are presented as worthless to their own Black community. They help neither the oppressed Black Jews nor oppressing White Rome, as their main desire is to maintain their power, positions, and false presentation of piety.
Clarence and Benjamin are placed on the cross, along with others whom the viewer is left to presume have made messianic claims. Ironically, one never sees Jesus on the cross.15 The Caucasian messianic figure (Benjamin), whom the oppressed Black community preferred, wants to see them dead and practically curses them on the cross. Yet he is the figure destined to become the savior of history, painted by their own oppressed hands. Conversely, Clarence prays for their forgiveness to an ambiguous recipient, as he has still not vocalized belief in God. Clarence is thereby presented as the true messianic figure — one who is enlightened, frees oppressed Black slaves, and forgives the missteps of those whom he seeks to liberate at the cost of his own life.
Clarence dies. However, his tombstone is broken, and he is resurrected by Jesus, who the viewer never saw die. Instead, Clarence has the true scars of sacrifice, which remain for a moment and then are miraculously removed, affirming his acceptance, enlightenment, and ultimate salvation. The resurrection of Clarence suggests not only God’s affirmation of his enlightenment and acceptable sacrifice as a Black martyr on behalf of his ethnically oppressed people. It further insinuates that his salvation was his work of liberation on behalf of the Blacks, poor, forced Black-on-Black crime victims, targets of a white oppressive system, and those unaccepted by their own and thereby forced to work within an oppressive system to gain social acceptance with fellow Blacks. Such purveyors of the true, social, Black liberation gospel and theology are enlightened and shall be raised and healed by Jesus in the end, though they never profess belief in God or place their faith in Jesus Christ.
The Philosophical View(s) of The Book of Clarence. The underlying yet overt perspectives presented by The Book of Clarence are unmistakable. 1) The Black populi of the world have been and continue to be oppressed. 2) They are victims of their captors and must do anything to survive in a system built to defeat them at every turn, even if that means victimizing one another. 3) Every apparent victory within the fixed system is one step closer to ultimate defeat and death. 4) Classic Christianity is not only useless to the oppressed, it encourages distance from, if not abandonment of, those who most need our help. 5) The Protestant Bible cannot be trusted; it puts forth a Jesus with whom the oppressed community is comfortable. 6) The oppressed community has cleaned up the classic Christian image of Jesus and sent him to ensnare others. 6) Their religious leaders have benefited to a degree; however, no true liberation has occurred. 7) Still, the oppressed community worships this white-skinned, acceptable messiah. 8) Christians are gullible and easily trade truth/enlightenment for simple, non-beneficial, non-historical beliefs in parlor tricks and words that entertain thoughtless captives. 9) True liberation is found in self-actualization/realization of one’s true status as a Black immortal and king. 10) Truth is found in mystic works such as the gnostic gospels versus the oppressing Bible and religious purveyors of white myths written by fearful men, who continue to suppress the social gospel for personal gain.
The Cultural Concerns Presented by The Book of Clarence: 1) The Book of Clarence incites social bias, ethnic division, and unrest. 2) It shouts victimization while failing to accept personal responsibility. 3) It encourages communal distrust of one’s fellow man due to the color of his skin. 4) It invites suspicion and disbelief in the biblical Jesus and the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God, contrary to the faith that afforded the self-same community hope and strength in the dark times of slavery, suffering, and almost certain death. 5) It redacts history in the name of truth and freedom while excusing present misbehavior in favor of the labels of victimhood and the disability of incapability, rather than offering an honest admission of unwillingness and loss of fortitude in a far richer environ of opportunity for ethnic minorities than history has witnessed to date. 6) Historically, ideas such as those promoted in The Book of Clarence have had consequences that have never proved well for those adopting them in any culture, ethnicity, or timeframe.
America has progressively become a place where the prevailing beliefs are anti-Christian16. The social climate is anti-biblical, divisive and intolerant of conservative Bible-based Christianity. It is steadily becoming more popular to openly despise, disregard and redact the biblical text and the tenets of the Christian faith. Biblical truths once held dear or at least respected in ages past are now reframed in the open market of entertainment and presented in irreverent tones. Fictional works claiming secret knowledge are presented at the forefront as trustworthy, reliable, and far more accurate and preferable than the Bible itself. The Book of Clarence is only one of many likeminded efforts17 with the promise of more to come. How should believers respond to such things in general, and, more pointedly, how should we respond to The Book of Clarence? We must be wise with that which God has entrusted to us, always asking the questions: 1. “Does the contribution of my finances to this film forward the kingdom of God and accurately portray who Christ is?” 2. “If I choose to see the film, am I able to identify the biblical Jesus in contrast to the false candidates being offered via the entertainment industry?” 3. “Can I identify the false and divisive worldviews promoted in this film?” 4. “Is God calling me to defend the faith before those who celebrate or are confused by the film?” 5. Is the Savior presented in Scripture worth trusting, loving and believing in his objective, literal, ethnic, historical setting? Or, must he be altered to be accepted and save sinners?”
Though the text of 1Peter 3 is just over two thousand years old, it speaks with a relevant potency for both the current hour and the days to come. Believers are to live and maintain godly lives in a world filled with wickedness among unbelievers and compromise amongst believers. Although the noble aspiration and pursuit of godliness and good should be deemed harmless and praiseworthy by society (1Pt.3:13), there are times when it invites suffering (1Pt.3:14,17; 4:12-14). However, if we suffer in this manner for Christ and His righteous cause, we are in good company, as Christ himself suffered unjustly (1Pt.3:18), and efficaciously for our sins. As such, we are to stand firm in (1Cor.16:13-14) and contend for (Jude 1:3) the faith, while reverently and gently (1Pt.3:15) defending it against false teaching in the local church, the body of Christ and the world at large.
C. L. Mitchell is a graduate of Andersonville Theological Seminary, Phoenix Seminary, and is currently a student at South African Theological Seminary (PhD program). He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and travels extensively as a guest lecturer.
**Please note this article’s ending has been expanded from when originally posted. Updated: February 6th, 2024.**
- John 8:1–11 (note that the narrative presented in the film is heavily redacted to fit and forward the viewpoint of the writer); Matthew 1:21–23, 14:22–33; Luke 1:26–27, 34, 23:34.
- The film makes specific use of this account: “3 And a certain Jew when he saw what Jesus did, playing upon the Sabbath day, departed straightway and told his father Joseph: Lo, thy child is at the brook, and he hath taken clay and fashioned twelve little birds, and hath polluted the Sabbath day. 4 And Joseph came to the place and saw: and cried out to him, saying: Wherefore doest thou these things on the Sabbath, which it is not lawful to do? But Jesus clapped his hands together and cried out to the sparrows and said to them: Go! and the sparrows took their flight and went away chirping. 5 And when the Jews saw it they were amazed, and departed and told their chief men that which they had seen Jesus do.” From “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” trans. M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), http://gnosis.org/library/inftoma.htm.
- “(46) Jesus said, ‘Among those born of women, from Adam until John the Baptist, there is no one so superior to John the Baptist that his eyes should not be lowered (before him). Yet I have said, whichever one of you comes to be a child will be acquainted with the kingdom and will become superior to John.’” From “The Gospel of Thomas,” trans. Thomas O. Lambdin, available via Marquette University, https://www.marquette.edu/maqom/Gospel%20of%20Thomas%20Lambdin.pdf.
- “Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.  For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god.’” From “The Gospel of Judas,” trans. Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 2006), available via Pinnacle Lutheran Church and School, https://pinnaclelutheran.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Gospel-of-Judas.pdf.
- “5) Peter said to Mary, Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman.” From “The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene,” trans. Karen L. King (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2003), excerpts of which can be found via The Gnostic Society Library archive here: http://gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm.
- “According to Jacob Dorman, author of Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions [Oxford University Press, 2013], the term ‘Black Hebrew Israelite’ does not describe a religion, but a philosophy of history that says ancient Israelites were Black and contemporary Black people are their descendants. ‘You can be a Black Hebrew Israelite and be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Rastafarian,’ Dorman said.” “Who Are the Black Hebrew Israelites?,” American Jewish Committee, November 22, 2022, https://www.ajc.org/news/who-are-the-black-hebrew-israelites.
- It is not clear whether Benjamin (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an Israelite or of some other ethnic origin. The author seems to suggest that he is of Jewish origin, as he is presented as a beggar and later as a messianic figure that is placed upon a cross by the Romans. Moreover, he is depicted in artwork, while on the cross, as a messianic figure often portrayed in European styled caucacity, bearing a sash of some sort across his chest while emitting a mystic glow.
- The screenwriter and producers have seemingly intentionally compounded the plight of the characters’ oppressed status by presenting them in tiers of social disadvantage: Jewish, Black, poor, oppressed, victims, hustling for survival, disenfranchised, women, Egyptian thief, socially unacceptable even to their own, and much more.
- To clarify, her standards fail to accept Clarence as a Black Jewish man on his own terms rather than the oppressive terms/expectations forced upon him and all of the Black Jews or oppressed people by the empowered, privileged Caucasian Romans.
- To become a true disciple of Jesus, Clarence should do a special work. This does not necessitate faith: simply free Black gladiators enslaved by the system. In so doing, the liberation of their bodies will result in the freedom of Clarence’s mind and eventually lead to full enlightenment and self-actualization.
- It should be noted that the gladiators are depicted as those profoundly oppressed and forced to enact violence on one another. They are painted as victims of a system that forces the poor and oppressed into slavery and violence toward one another to survive. There may be few Caucasians who have fallen prey to this system. However, the overarching idea is “to be Black is to be oppressed” and forced into gross, inhumane measures for survival.
- Most of the gladiators are Jewish Black men who save a few Caucasians unfortunate enough to be caught in the cycle of oppression.
- The intentional Black slave owner in partial white face is an attempt to equate the slave owner with the first-century tax collectors who aided Rome in oppressing their own Jewish people through financial oppression.
- Benjamin’s freedom is depicted in social-economic terms. Note well that he receives his ultimate cleansing from oppressed Black people who are then taken by his cleansed presence, bright smile, and financial generosity. They make him their white messiah after cleansing him because he is culturally more acceptable to their oppressed people than any Black messiah due to his color and financial generosity (which he received from the genuine Black messiah).
- Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) says that Judas (Michael Ward) will betray him to Judas’ disagreement. Jesus exerts a mystic power over Judas, forcing him to imbibe pleasurable bread and sop that he does not care for, until it is forcibly placed into his mouth by his own hand, under the influence of an irresistible power.
- Quasi-Christian, nominal Christian, progressive Christian, post-Christian, spiritualist, gnostic and/or atheistic in route to an extreme nihilism. The dominant worldviews are relativism, subjectivism and an orientation toward perspectivism.
- Books, seminars, movies, television programs, college lectures, news casts, etc.