‘The Book of Clarence’ Filmmaker Jeymes Samuel Responds to Claims of Blasphemy: “I Like the Smoke”


Jeymes Samuel can take the heat when it comes to commentary about his work. And he’s expecting plenty to follow the release of his latest film, The Book of Clarence, a biblical epic set for release on Jan. 12 about a man who, witnessing the rising popularity of Jesus the Messiah, attempts to cash in on that fame by performing fake miracles to get out of debt.

“People always see things the wrong way and they call it backlash,” says the director who also wrote and produced the film and its accompanying soundtrack, which arrives Friday along with the feature. “It’s conversation. I like the smoke. Let’s talk.”

LaKeith Stanfield stars in the lead role of Clarence, which reunites him with his The Harder They Fall co-star R J Cyler among a large ensemble cast that includes Omar Sy, Caleb McLaughlin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anna Diop and James McAvoy. Additional actors reimagine popular figures from the Bible such as Teyana Taylor, who stars as Mary Magdalene; Alfre Woodard, who portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus; David Oyelowo as John the Baptist; and Michael Ward who appears as Judas Iscariot.

The project also sees Samuel reconnect with his The Harder They Fall producing partner Jay-Z, who performs on the song “I Want You Forever” on the soundtrack for The Book of Clarence. Doja Cat, Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi, and Shabba Ranks are featured on the album as well.

“I don’t choose the features first. I let the song tell me who it needs on it,” explains the music producer who sings all of the songs on the album.

“The song ‘Forever’ is 9 minutes and 33 seconds long and it’s basically a celebration with the best musicians on it. You have Pino Palladino, one of the best bass players in the world, James Poyser from The Roots on keys, Isaiah Sharkey from Chicago, one of the best guitarists in the world, on electric and acoustic guitar, and it’s got Ian Hendrickson-Smith from the Dap-Kings on the horns. I just want you to vibe out,” adds Samuel as he sings lyrics from the track.

All I want to say is that I love you so much

I don’t want to be without you

I want you forever.

The impetus for the film is similar to that of Samuel’s 2021 feature directorial debut in which audiences saw themselves in the faces of real-life Black cowboys of the Old West for the first time. The British filmmaker was particularly set on creating a visual and auditory experience on the scale of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth and Alex North’s score for Spartacus, knowing studios would have a hard time seeing Black actors as these historic characters.

“Movies like this just aren’t made anymore and when they are made, they’re not made by Black people,” Samuel says. “What Black person is allowed to venture into the Bible musically? What insane studio exec has given Black people the right to venture where they absolutely have the right to go? Where we absolutely should go? I’d rather see a film about Black people and people of color in environments that look like the environments that we all inhabit. All people see people of color around. Everyone sees us. So why can’t we be in those movies?”

Ultimately, Legendary greenlit the project with producer Mary Parent.

Samuel is aware that audiences, too, might be resistant to a remixing of biblical narratives that are recognized as fact in the Christian faith.

“We’re going to have to do a lot of educating with it because people are touchy,” he adds. “We released a trailer and a lot of people said ‘Blasphemy.’ It’s not blasphemous at all. ‘They’re mocking Jesus!’ No he’s not. All the conversations Clarence has are real thoughts that we’ve all had.”

Why a January release for this film instead of Christmas Day?

For me, I just wanted it out. On one hand, you can’t help but think, maybe Christmas, maybe Easter. On the other hand you’re like, Clarence needs to be born. Whenever it comes out is the right time for it to come out, you know what I mean? I can’t wait for people to see this movie; it is dope beyond belief. It’s like my mama always told me, “Go forth and raise heaven.”

Did you work on the album concurrently with the film or before/after?

I see music and I hear film. I’ve always seen music, so as I’m writing the script, I’m listening to the dialogue and I’m taking melodies from the dialogue. There are no words, no sentences that aren’t in a key, that aren’t in notes, everything is a melody, whether it sounds like it or not. So I take my melodies as I’m writing the script and I do the songs from there. In the case of The Book of Clarence, I was taking notes for it for years, so by the time I finished the script, the score was practically written; every single song was written. It’s a really interesting process, but I’ve always thought that composers come onto films too late in the process. The film’s already shot so now the composer can’t influence any picture, he just has to compose what the editor’s edited and sometimes they put temp music in that the composer has to duplicate. A director should be working with a composer before he’s even cast the movie, as soon as you know the script, you should be speaking about the musical lens, the sonic landscape, the melodic vistas you want to portray because that would influence your shot list. The melodies would influence where you place the camera, how you move the camera. It doesn’t happen in film but because I compose and I write and produce and sing, I’m able to bring all of these things to the fore at once.

What sound did you set out to achieve with this score?

I wanted to do something wholly singular and give us all of the biblical epic, classical scores that we’re used to. If you look at Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth or Alex North’s score for Spartacus, I wanted to take all of those things and then bring it into our lifestyle just like the movie does with the biblical stories that we’re used to. I wanted to take everything that we’ve heard and bring the modernity of our minds today, but that doesn’t just mean hip-hop or R&B. I wanted to swim musically with a neo-vintage musical landscape. That’s what we call it in London.

Movies like this just aren’t made anymore and when they are made, they’re not made by Black people. What Black person is allowed to venture into the Bible musically? What insane studio exec has given Black people the right to venture where they absolutely have the right to go? Where we absolutely should go. I’d rather see a film about Black people and people of color in environments that look like the environments that we all inhabit. All people see people of color around. Everyone sees us. So why can’t we be in those movies? I love those movies. But I never see us in them. I’ve never met a person in my life, white or Black, that looks like Charlton Heston. So therefore, when I do venture down that road, when I do venture into the days of innocence and faith, we’re going to have something as sonically different as the picture. That’s why you have everyone on the soundtrack, from Jorge Ben Jor from Brazil to Kodak Black.

Jeymes Samuel on the set of The Book of Clarence

Moris Puccio

So how did you get this movie made?

When I was making The Harder They Fall I thought, let this movie be successful because I know what I’m doing next, but I needed The Harder They Fall to come out first because I needed to give everyone a singular piece from the Old West to the New Testament. I cast LaKeith as Clarence the day I met him to play Cherokee Bill in The Harder They Fall and I had that script ready to go as soon as The Harder They Fall was finished. I think the studios thought I was going to do an action adventure next because rumors about my next movie had been swelling around so people ran off, except for one person, Mary Parent at Legendary Pictures. She read the script and she said, “I’m making this movie.” She understood my brand of crazy and believed in the story and the filmmaker and rolled with us to get it done.

There’s a running conversation about knowledge versus belief in The Book of Clarence. What are you saying with that debate?

Clarence always talks about knowledge being stronger than belief, and he’s upset with people that speak about one thing but don’t walk it. He’s saying they don’t know God exists, they believe God exists, which is why his argument was they pick and choose when to be righteous, as a lot of us do, right? But I do firmly believe that, not in regard to religion, but just in general, knowledge is stronger than belief. If you sat in front of me when I was making The Harder They Fall, technically, there’s no way I could make that movie. A friend of mine, Andrea Iervolino, who owns Ambi Studio, sat me down in Claridge’s at 8 a.m. in the morning and said, “Jeymes,” in his Italian accent, “You are never going to make this movie. It’s too big.” Now ordinarily, I’d take offense, but he offered me $5 million and said, “Do a smaller movie, Jeymes.” Usually, when someone tells you you’re not going to do something, they don’t give you money, they just say, “Kick rocks.”

But I couldn’t get angry because he was just talking about his belief, right? He said, “If it’s successful, then I’ll give you $50 million. When you’re six or seven movies in, you can make The Harder They Fall.” I looked him in the eye, and I told him, “You believe I won’t do it. Knowledge is stronger than belief, and I know I’m making this movie. I know it with every fiber of my being so I can’t take your $5 million, brother.” Literally a year later we were in prep for a $19 million dollar debut and when the trailer was dropping, I called him an hour before and I said “Bro, check the internet in 60 minutes.” And he said, “Bro you did it. I cannot believe it. You are the physical personification of the word knowledge,” and he was calling it back to me, “knowledge is stronger than belief.”

So, I do firmly believe that knowledge is stronger than belief, which is why I gave that phrase to Clarence. If you met me five years ago, you would know that I’m making The Harder They Fall. You wouldn’t question it. It was hard for Andrea. He’s not from my environment. He doesn’t suffer the trauma that I suffer every day and the disbelief I have to navigate. So for him, that’s a brand new conversation he’s having with me. For me, I’ve heard that conversation a thousand times and now I’m making this movie, and I will tell you now, my next movie is a high-octane action adventure.

With The Harder They Fall, the criticism of the casting choices somewhat overshadowed the film. Were you disappointed by the response?

The reaction to The Harder They Fall was great. Over 150 million people watched that movie and now it’s done. As I told them, look, I shot the prelude to The Harder They Fall in 2012 with all the same characters but different actors. I cast Erykah Badu as Stagecoach Mary and Black people were arguing with me saying Stagecoach Mary didn’t exist. When I made They Die By Dawn people were arguing with me, saying Black cowboys did not exist and They Die By Dawn was to combat that argument, to show you that we did exist. So when I made They The Harder They Fall and we’re talking about Stagecoach Mary wasn’t that complexion and they’re putting out proof of it, I went, “Oh, so now you know that Stagecoach Mary exists; job done.” If you guys were doing that prior, I wouldn’t have had to make The Harder They Fall. Lawmen: Bass Reeves has now been greenlit. I put Jonathan Majors on a huge pedestal to the world. For me it was kind of funny because the real Cherokee Bill used to pass himself off as white and no one complained about LaKeith. No one complained about Idris Elba. So for me, it wasn’t even something I took [seriously].

Also, people use this word backlash. There’s no such thing. My back hasn’t got a single lash. Not from anyone my complexion. So these conversations are good conversations to have because all they do is spread awareness. Like now it’s amazing that Black people know that we existed in that time. The Harder They Fall is Black people. Black people all having a journey amongst ourselves. So for me, The Harder They Fall is a wicked film. It’s Jeymes Samuel. And from The Harder They Fall to The Book of Clarence, say what you like, but you have to say I’m an original.

There is a signature to your style of filmmaking. Within minutes of watching The Book of Clarence, I thought, “You can instantly tell this is a Jeymes Samuel movie.

I suppose my signature is probably the way I handle music in the film and dialogue and swag, but if someone had asked me what my signature was prior, I wouldn’t even know. But there are particular Jeymes things that I do, like the way I make the score nuanced. That really means a lot to me to hear you say, “You know you’re watching a Jeymes Samuel film.” That’s all I wanted. That’s a really beautiful thing. That’s all that little negro wanted in the hood is for you to know you’re watching a Jeymes Samuel film.

Are you concerned at all about audiences’ reactions to a story like this which reimagines characters and narratives from the Bible?

We’re going to have to do a lot of educating with it, because people are touchy. We released a trailer and a lot of people said “Blasphemy.” It’s not blasphemous at all. “They’re mocking Jesus!” No he’s not. All the conversations Clarence has are real thoughts that we’ve all had. In The Book of Clarence, he gets to speak to the Virgin Mary and she gets to explain to him and the audience exactly what went on at conception. It’s an amazing scene. When you were a kid and you heard about the virgin birth, you may have believed it because you were a child, but when you get older, this stuff is why people tune out. The birth of the divine is a beautiful story whether it happened or not. And it really irritates me when people say, “I don’t believe in Jesus.” What do you mean you don’t believe in Jesus? Jesus, that he existed or Jesus, the story? Because either way—as Alfre Woodard said, “I believe in the walk of Jesus”— the walk of Jesus is what we all want to strive for. So there won’t be war, there won’t be theft and all the cruel things we do to each other. So I love the fact that there’s a movie set in the Bible days and I can explain to you Matthew 24:5. I didn’t want to ram it down people’s throats because I could have easily started it with that, “For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.” But it’s such a beautiful thing to make these films and have conversation around them. People always see things the wrong way and they call it backlash. It’s conversation. I like the smoke. Let’s talk. Because if we have these conversations, then we’re powerful.

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