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Director Jeymes Samuel on 'Book of Clarence', a Biblical Epic through a Black lens

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

What if Jesus and his 12 disciples were Black? Well, in the new film "The Book Of Clarence," they are Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF CLARENCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's him.

LAKEITH STANFIELD: (As Clarence) Jesus of Nazareth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) My God.

STANFIELD: (As Clarence) No, no. God doesn't exist.

RASCOE: Set in the streets of Jerusalem, 29 C.E., "The Book Of Clarence" follows a nonbeliever, Clarence, played by LaKeith Stanfield. He's a young man who's hustling, in debt and trying to take care of his mama.

JEYMES SAMUEL: Clarence is every man. Clarence is the person that we grew up with. Clarence is the person that lives next door to you or is your younger brother or is your big brother that has dreams and aspirations.

RASCOE: Jeymes Samuel wrote, directed and scored the film. He also talked to me about it and about faith. A heads up - at the end of this conversation, you will hear him use the N-word to illustrate a point.

To start us off, I asked Samuel if he'd had any reluctance about injecting satire and comedy into a biblical story, and he told me, not at all.

SAMUEL: I don't think you've lived a day in your life without laughter. I grew up in the hood. There's absolute hijinks and laughter in the hood and absolute terror, so none of it is actually satire for me. You know, Clarence and his best friend, Elijah, get stopped by the Romans.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF CLARENCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) There's been a theft in the area, and you men fit the description of the assailant.

STANFIELD: (As Clarence) Funny - my friend and I have two entirely different descriptions.

SAMUEL: That happens to literally all of us growing up - that we as, like, Black people in the hood - we begin to make fun of it and make fun of the police stopping us - right? - unlawfully. So what I did was tell the story of an everyman - a man without faith who finds it. There's so many stories of people without faith, of false messiahs in the Bible.

RASCOE: Can I ask you about - because your last movie, "The Harder They Fall," which I really loved - that was a Western with a Black point of view. Do you think of it that way, or do you just think of it as, I am telling my - an experience that I know and can relate to and people around me know?

SAMUEL: Yeah, no. I never see things as I'm doing a Black movie because Jurassic Park ain't really got no Black people in there except Samuel L. Jackson, who gets chomped to death. And...

RASCOE: Yeah.

SAMUEL: ...That ain't no white lens, right? So me telling "The Book Of Clarence" isn't through a Black lens. It's through a world lens. The Bible says, skin the color of burnt brass, hair the texture of lambswool. That don't sound like Max von Sydow to me, right? We watched "The Ten Commandments." On our Easter, we have a family around, and it's just on in the background, and - (impersonating Moses) let my people go. And Moses parting the Red Sea - and no one questions the fact that Yul Brynner is not Egyptian - doesn't look like any Egyptian I've ever met. "Ten Commandments" isn't through a white lens. It's just cinema.

So for me, "The Book Of Clarence" is just cinema through a world lens. It's populated with Black people because I wanted to have a story that resembled the environment that I grew up in. I do want people of my complexion to watch that film and have a point of visual reference that they can relate to when they watch biblical-era films, when they see Jesus on screen and all that because we never had that, Ayesha - not once in 136 years of the moving image.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BOOK OF CLARENCE")

STANFIELD: (As Clarence) But am I not a child of the Lord?

DAVID OYELOWO: (As John the Baptist) You highfalutin nincompoop. You want me to baptize you to attain good favor with our Lord so that when you are called to heaven, you and this bush man will be welcomed with open arms?

STANFIELD: (As Clarence) Yes, basically.

OYELOWO: (As John the Baptist) So, Clarence, you now believe in Jesus?

STANFIELD: (As Clarence) Yes, basically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

RASCOE: I mean, I felt like it was a very interesting - because with Clarence, he does start off as someone who does not believe, but he goes on a journey with faith...

SAMUEL: Exactly.

RASCOE: ...Over the course of this movie. Why did you make that choice?

SAMUEL: Because that's all of us, right? I - Some of the best people I know aren't religious. Like, Clarence makes a lot of money, and he gives it all away at his own detriment. A lot of the best people I know aren't religious, and a lot of the worst people I know are super religious. Human beings are human beings. Clarence does a great thing while he has no faith, but he still embarks on a road that leads him down a path of self-discovery, faith and, ultimately, redemption. But he ends up in a place of faith. He says, I don't believe. I know there's a God.

RASCOE: What do you think is the difference between belief and knowing?

SAMUEL: There's a huge difference. You haven't spoken to one of your religious friends who's telling you alcohol is bad but is smoking a cigarette? Like, man, you're a walking contradiction. One of my friends, he was telling me - we were getting ready for a Halloween party. He sent me, Halloween is against God. It's a pagan belief, this and that. And while he was talking to me, he was smoking a cigarette. I was like, what you're doing is the worst sin on the planet. Cigarettes are so bad. They kill the little child next to you that's not even doing it. You don't know there's a God. You believe in it. If you knew God exists and he told you that cigarette is bad, you'll never smoke again.

For me, your parents teach you about God or something else in the universe, and then you get to a stage where you know it to be true. You get oxygen from the trees, energy from the sun. Then you're thrown in this scenario that you should not come out of, and you come out of it, and the only explanation that you can have is God. So for me, knowledge is stronger than belief. You know what I mean?

RASCOE: Yeah, I mean, and I have to ask you - another part of the movie that I found really kind of funny but I also saw where it was coming from was this idea of a white Jesus - blue eyes, just beautiful (laughter), like, this...

SAMUEL: Yeah.

RASCOE: That's very attractive, but it was very attractive to the Black people in this movie. And I wonder, were you trying to say something about Black Christianity being shaped by a European worldview?

SAMUEL: I wouldn't say Black Christianity, but I was not trying to. I was straight saying something about Black people...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

SAMUEL: ...Being shaped by white Jesus.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes, and they love the way he look.

SAMUEL: Exactly. That's exactly what I was saying. When I was growing up, we had a big Jesus picture in the living room...

RASCOE: Yeah.

SAMUEL: ...White Jesus being crucified...

RASCOE: Yeah.

SAMUEL: ...And it was 3D.

RASCOE: Yeah, and - well, and in my grandma's house, we would have our JFK and then Martin Luther King and then white Jesus (laughter).

SAMUEL: JFK, Martin Luther King and white Jesus. And watch this - if you said to your gran, two of those pictures have to go, you know what's going to remain.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

SAMUEL: So I literally shone a light, a humorous one, on our...

RASCOE: Yeah.

SAMUEL: ...Obsession with the imagery of white Jesus.

RASCOE: And what do you want people to take from this film to reflect on when it comes to their faith and to their belief?

SAMUEL: I want people to be inspired by - your faith won't me challenged leaving this movie. But if you have no faith, it may be challenged. You may think of the time where you did have a walking on water moment - right? - 'cause we all go - we all have that moment in our lives at some point. And we experience miracles so often, we just take them for granted. We abuse the magic of life every single day by the way we talk to each other, by the way we treat each other. We are much - there is something greater than us, and we are much greater than we think we are.

I watch a lot of people complain when I say - 'cause, you know, I always say peace to the God, peace to the God. That's how I approach my people. That's how I speak to them. And I see people in comments say, you know, he says we're gods, and that's where the fall of man will happen. Really? But yet, no one would comment if I go, peace, my n****. No one would say anything.

Well, I see the God in you, Ayesha. And when you speak to Jeymes and you see the good in Jeymes, you see the God in Jeymes. You know what I mean? So if we come out from "The Book Of Clarence" with even a slight sense of wonder, man, I've done my job. You know what I mean?

RASCOE: That is Jeymes Samuel, the writer and director of the new movie "The Book Of Clarence." Thank you so much.

SAMUEL: Thank you for having me, Ayesha. And peace to the gods.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ABOUT YOU")

JORGE BEN JOR: (Singing) You and I, orange sun in strawberry sky, run, go come. We go build a shrine. Psalms and song, we may live inside. You call, I come... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.