About halfway through Jeymes Samuel’s 2021 revenge Western The Harder They Fall, the character Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler) proclaims, “Like they say in the book of Clarence, ‘No man out-speed me.’”
Another character replies, “Out-speed ain’t a word, and Clarence ain’t a book.”
It’s true that Clarence is indeed not a book in the Bible. But for Samuel, the book of Clarence was very real, and this brief line of dialogue that went mostly unnoticed at the time was his way of telling the world that the book of Clarence would indeed come to exist.
The British filmmaker, who made his feature directorial debut with The Harder They Fall, already knew that his next film would be The Book of Clarence, an epic set in the biblical era following a man who attempts to become one of the Messiah’s apostles. “I wanted to tell a Bible story about an everyman,” Samuel tells Vanity Fair in his first interview about the film. “I always wanted to explore the Bible stories, but from the angle of the person that sells Jesus his sandals, the woman or man that owns the hair salon.”
The Book of Clarence, which Tristar plans to release in theaters on January 12, features an all-star cast, led by LaKeith Stanfield in a demanding performance as Clarence and a supporting cast that includes Omar Sy, RJ Cyler, Benedict Cumberbatch, James McAvoy, Anna Diop, David Oyelowo, Alfre Woodard, and Teyana Taylor. The ambitious tale pulls in classic biblical figures like Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and John the Baptist, but all with an unexpected twist. Like in The Harder They Fall, writer-director Samuel puts Black characters at the center of Clarence, exploding another classic Hollywood movie genre with a fresh take, full of humor and heart. “Most of the stories told in the Old West didn’t include people of color. We know they existed. We know we’ve been here just as long as anyone else,” says Jay-Z, who produced the film and credits Samuel with “finding fresh ways and perspectives to talk about these stories.”
Samuel’s follow-up — as seen in these exclusive images — is just as imaginative, full of witty dialogue and winking humor, plus fantastical moments that allow his protagonist to explore faith on many levels in what Samuel calls a relatable “journey of self-belief and world discovery.” He adds, “I think a lot of us have the issue of not only outside belief, but inside belief.”
In The Book of Clarence, 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.
“Clarence is a person that doesn’t believe in anything outside of what’s in front of him, what he can see and hear,” says Samuel. “Clarence has a lot of inside belief—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. I think it’s just a really interesting vantage point to explore living in that particular time and place, where most everyone around him is speaking about the Messiah.”
The Book of Clarence has some deep-cut references to biblical characters and storylines that even a moderately well-versed Christian might not be aware of. Samuel says he didn’t have to do much research on the actual Bible stories. “Just being Black, you grew up in a house where you go to church on Sundays,” he says. “I think, if you grow up in the hood, you are inundated with Bible studies.” He did, however, do research on the more miniscule aspects of everyday life during that time, like what sort of currency they used or where people would get their hair done.
As a producer, Jay-Z says he was most concerned that those who hear about the film and its premise might “immediately just focus on the religious aspect of it and not the human story,” he says. Though Clarence may be full of doubt about the Messiah in the beginning, he’s forced to find his faith as the story moves on. The film doesn’t make fun of religion or the biblical stories, but rather attempts to expand that world.
“My fear is that people don’t allow that arc to take place, and are immediately judging,” says Jay-Z. He notes he’s been on calls with studio execs where someone will accidentally call it a “faith-based movie,” but faith is only “a backdrop,” he says. “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.”
Samuel, who started writing the script for The Book of Clarence back in early 2017, had been looking for the right lead actor. In a casting conversation with Stanfield for The Harder They Fall, he found him. Talking on the phone about playing the role of Cherokee Bill, Stanfield abruptly cut the call short. “He got what seemed like an emergency phone call, and his demeanor changed,” remembers Samuel. “When he was speaking, it wasn’t business no more, it was just street. I come from the hood in London, and I realized that I’m speaking to someone who’s hood, who’s street, who’s charming, who’s a hustler. I’m speaking to Clarence.”
Throughout filming The Harder They Fall, he spoke to Stanfield about the role of Clarence, a smart, charming individual who is not only attempting to get in with the apostles, but also hopes to catch the eye of his love interest (Diop). Stanfield has to be at times quick-witted, funny, argumentative, confident, and filled with disbelief. “I think this role is one of the most demanding roles I’ve ever written, and what LaKeith undertakes is going to surprise a lot of cinemagoers, that one person can undertake such a journey,” says Samuel.
Once he had the cast, Samuel had to find a location that could stand in for Nazareth, and have a similar feel to the classic biblical epics like The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Ben-Hur. They eventually landed in Matera, in southern Italy, which is known for its ancient cave dwellings, limestone churches, and incredible architecture. “It was hugely challenging for me, in the sense of me being in a foreign place and working with an entirely foreign-speaking crew,” says Samuel. “But it was really exhilarating. To see all of the cast descend upon Matera and turn the whole town into 33 AD, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.”
Samuel takes a big swing with The Book of Clarence, but that’s all he knows how to do. “He has this fearlessness to him,” says Jay-Z of his longtime collaborator. “He’s very confident, but it’s not off-putting.” And he’s confident enough to admit that he’s put some Easter eggs into this film, just like his clandestine Book of Clarence reference in The Harder They Fall. “I have a thousand stories to tell, so that’s why I can kind of lay Easter eggs in each one.” We’ll just have to wait for him to turn the page to see what comes next.
The Book of Clarence will be released theatrically on January 12, 2024.