The new film "The Book of Clarence" tells a familiar story: A man is down on his luck and gets an idea for how to turn things around. What's different about this one is it takes place in Jerusalem during the biblical rise of Jesus Christ, and the guy's idea to get out of debt is to imitate Jesus and pretend to be a new Messiah sent by God. It stars LaKeith Stanfield as the fictional Clarence, and it has a largely Black cast. It was also produced by some big names, including rapper Jay-Z. GBH’s Morning Edition co-host Jeremy Siegel sat down with Cambridge Day film critic Sarah G. Vincent to talk about the movie. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: So "The Book of Clarence," what is this movie about?
Sarah G. Vincent: So it's about Clarence, who happens to be the twin brother of Thomas, an apostle.
LaKeith Stanfield [audio from film]: I'm Clarence. Where I'm from, you fight to survive. I'm not a bad person. Just playing the cards I was dealt.
Vincent: He's sort of this character who has lost faith in the idea of God all together. And so he thinks Jesus is a scam, too. He does a deep dive into Jesus and how he got his success.
LaKeith Stanfield [audio from film]: I need to figure out what inspires him. I can just replicate what he does. Imagine the money people will give us.
Vincent: He goes and visits with, like, the Virgin Mary. He visits John the Baptist, who's Jesus's cousin and also the person who baptized Jesus. So he's really following in his footsteps because he's like, oh, I want to be a scammer too. Coming to find out that oops, he is. That's when it becomes a really traditional biblical epic because, you know, the whole setup is this guy without faith is going to find faith. He's going to follow in his footsteps and do this investigation and do all these things, and then he's going to accidentally find out, oops, this guy is the Son of God.
So it follows the same arc of a lot of biblical epics where someone like Barabbas in, you know, Anthony Quinn played Barabbas a long time ago, and Charlton Heston played Ben-Hur. So it follows the footsteps of those epics who just don't think Jesus is relevant to their life. Jesus is at the margins of the story, and then suddenly he becomes the focus and they all become true believers.
James McAvoy [audio from film]: If you give me Jesus of Nazareth, I will let you walk free, and I will give you power, wealth. You be somebody.
LaKeith Stanfield [audio from film]: I'd die before I give him up to Rome.
James McAvoy [audio from film]: Then death it is.
Vincent: And Jesus is sort of like Neo from "The Matrix." Not that cool outfit, he's still wearing, you know, the usual sack-clothy sort of outfit, but he stops the stones from stoning somebody mid-flight. When people are doing something, he has sort of a flair. So it really finds its focus once it sort of gets to the part of converting, Clarence converting himself into becoming a true believer.
Siegel: So this is a recreation of what happens in the biblical text. You have a made-up character who thinks Jesus is a scammer and wants to scam people too. You grew up religious, right?
Siegel: What do you make of the what some would describe as a sacrilegious retelling of the story here? Did you like it?
Vincent: So I actually did a deep dive afterward because I was curious. I was like, people aren't going to like this. When you're going to movies as much as I am, I'm hardened by years of watching movies. If you want a really, truly sacrilegious movie, there was a movie called "Dicks: The Musical."
Bowen Yang [audio from film]: God is Man and woman. God is Black and white. God is straight and gay.
Vincent: God plays a big role in that movie, and I loved it. I thought it was hilarious, but that was sacrilegious. This movie is pretty staid. You know, there are characters in the Bible who decide to pretend that they're messiahs and scam people. So I think the director was going for that, imagining what those people were and fleshing out that idea. There's always been controversy over the years of what does Jesus really look like?
So it's kind of fun for the people who have always been saying that Jesus was a Black man, to see a Black man play Jesus. And so it sort of does fill that hole. I'm kind of curious if Jeymes Samuel, the director, wanted to really do a Black Jesus movie, but that wouldn't sell, so he had to find the spin by making it about an ordinary person and sort of sneaking in Black Jesus. Because he really plays it straight. And if it was a Black Jesus movie, it would have been a solid Black Jesus movie.
Siegel: That is film critic Sarah G. Vincent of the online publication Cambridge Day. Sarah, thanks so much for talking with me.
Vincent: Thank you.
Alston: You're listening to GBH News.