Rapper Jay-Z is producing a new film about Jesus of Nazareth. Well, it’s not exactly about Jesus; it’s about a drug dealer in ancient Jerusalem trying to “get in with the apostles.”
Writer and director Jeymes Samuel says he has been planning The Book of Clarence since 2017. He even threw a line of dialogue into his 2021 film, The Harder They Fall, as a personal Easter egg, according to Vanity Fair. And now, Jay-Z is backing Samuel’s next film, using the familiar historical setting of Biblical epics to highlight issues that black Americans face today.
The Harder They Fall was a western led by Regina King, Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, and many more stars. It was surprisingly funny, featured great action, and also gave viewers some sly nods to the modern black experience — Samuel’s second attempt at a pastiche of modernism and the old west after his debut feature, 2013’s They Die by Dawn.
For his next film, though, Samuel is going even farther back in history, this time to Biblical times — with an “everyman” protagonist who is a drug dealer, hustler, and con man looking to make a fast buck and realizes that this Jesus fellow sure seems to be gaining a big following. Vanity Fair says of the character:
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.
The film’s trailer shows ancient Jerusalem with a dense African population, including Clarence (played by LaKeith Stanfield of the recent Disney flop Haunted Mansion). It keeps the face of Jesus of Nazareth obscured, so it’s unclear if Samuel will ultimately depict him as Israeli or West African. Clarence says he wants to be like Jesus (that is, having adoring fans and “power”) and tries to sell himself as a counterfeit copy.
Clarence clumsily imitates Christ’s preaching, fakes a miracle with his friend (RJ Cyler), and declares: “I am your new Messiah.” The teaser culminates with a Roman centurion (James McAvoy) challenging Clarence to walk on water to prove he’s the real deal.
However, as cynical as this synopsis sounds, the trailer and the filmmakers hint at a redemption for Clarence.
“Clarence is a person that doesn’t believe in anything outside of what’s in front of him, what he can see and hear,” Samuel told Vanity Fair. “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.”
In one scene, Clarence is standing in what looks like the Jordan River facing David Oyelowo, whose character looks like John the Baptist (though Oyelowo’s role has not yet been revealed, Vanity Fair reveals John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene will appear in the film). “In spite of your selfish ways, there is a beautiful soul in there,” Oyelowo says as he places his hand to Stanfield’s chest. However, later on, Oyelowo viciously slaps him and calls him a “blasphemous swine.”
For his part, Jay-Z hopes that people don’t think the film, which is set for a January 2024 release, is a “faith-based movie,” and he hopes that people don’t “immediately just focus on the religious aspect of it and not the human story.”
The rapper noted that in some meetings about the film, several executives had accidentally call it a”faith-based movie,” but Jay-Z warns that faith is only “a backdrop” for the film.
“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,” he explained.
Despite Jay-Z’s hesitance to wear the label, genuine faith-based films have been making surprising headway at theaters. In March, Jesus Revolution surprised the industry by out-earning all the other films it faced in theaters at the time. Then, in July, the film Sound of Freedom outpaced even big summer blockbusters like Indiana Jones.
TV has also found a hit with the faith-based series The Chosen, which also recently began airing on the CW Network and earned double the ratings of any of the network’s other shows upon its July debut.