What would Black Jesus do? ‘The Book of Clarence’ offers some hilarious answers
OPINION: LaKeith Stanfield stars as Clarence, a man without faith who decides to pretend to be a Jesus-like figure to prey on the true believers.
Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Any movie that stars LaKeith Stanfield is a yes for me. The brother was genius in “Atlanta” and in films like “Sorry to Bother You,” “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “Get Out.” He’s a really intelligent actor who’s great at giving us comedy and drama in the same moment. And he’s so Black in everything he does onscreen. As soon as I saw that Stanfield was the star of “The Book of Clarence,” I was in. He’s on my list of actors who will move me to buy a ticket to whatever film they’re starring in.
Also, any movie that features a Black Jesus is a yes for me because I’m certain that Jesus Christ was Black. The itinerant preacher who spread the radical idea that there is only one God and was executed for spreading that idea was unquestionably Black. I think he looked like me: brown skin, kinky hair. He spent his youth hiding in Egypt not Sweden. There’s no way Jesus looked like Bjorn Borg. The depictions of him with white skin are just perpetuating white supremacy.
“The Book of Clarence,” which opens Friday, is a smart and funny film that’s built around showing and telling the story of a Jesus figure who’s Black. There’s someone actually playing Jesus — Nicholas Pinnock — but Stanfield’s Clarence takes the idea of a Jesus figure in a fascinating direction. Clarence hilariously pretends to be Jesus-like because he wants the money and acclaim that Jesus has. But he lacks the faith. He thinks Jesus is doing tricks. So he sets out to do tricks — his friend acts like he’s blind so Clarence can appear to give him sight and then the unknowing audience can give them money. He’s a con man preying on those who have faith.
It seems like the film is setting up to be a sendup of the Jesus story, but then Clarence shows us that he has extraordinary character, selflessness and perhaps even a Jesus-like willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. In a way, he becomes Jesus-like. Director Jeymes Samuel (who also produced and directed “The Harder They Fall”) says he based “The Book of Clarence” on Biblical epics like “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments,” and you can feel that, but at a deeper level, this movie is his take on the story of Jesus. It’s brilliant to remix that story because the story of Jesus is the greatest story ever told.
I don’t say that from a religious perspective — I’m not a serious Christian. I mean that from a branding perspective. The entire foundation for the global, multicentury-old Christian church, one of the biggest and longest-lasting institutions in human life, is the story of Jesus Christ. His miraculous birth, his radical teaching, his tragic execution, his gigantic self-sacrifice for us and his final rise. This story is so critical to Christianity that it’s like Jesus is the best brand ambassador of all time. My kids would call him the most popular influencer ever. Michael Jordan could never do for Nike what Jesus has done for the Christian church. The story of Jesus strikes a deep chord in billions of people so Samuel is smart to make a film that plays off of a story that so many people already love. “The Bible’s the biggest franchise in the world. The biggest superhero, the most famous superhero of all time is Jesus himself,” Samuel said.
Samuel has taken one of the best-loved stories of all time and remixed it with a Black flair. He gives us a Black man with no faith who shows us that he has a deep ability to give himself to the people. It’s a powerful story, and it’s one of my favorite films of the year so far.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at TheGrio.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
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