Back in 2021, the BFI London Film Festival opened in the most audacious and A-list manner seen in many years. With the curtain-raising slot usually reserved for more somber, prestige dramas, Netflix’s all-star, all-Black rootin’ tootin’ Western The Harder They Fall — with an ensemble cast including Regina King, Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield, Jonathan Majors, Delroy Lindo and Zazie Beets — brought the house down, with noise levels at London’s Royal Festival Hall skyrocketing further when producer Jay-Z and Beyonce showed up.
The Harder They Fall also welcomed an exciting new filmmaking face to the cinematic fold in local London boy Jeymes Samuel, the debut director previously better known by his singer/songwriter and music producer moniker The Bullitts.
Two years on, and Samuel is returning to the London Film Festival for the world premiere of his follow-up — The Book of Clarence — a film just as bold, creative and wild as his first, and with another all-star cast, again led by Stanfield but also including David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Omar Sy, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Pinnock and James McAvoy.
Quite possibly the funkiest Biblical epic ever put on screen, the film, from Legendary, gives the origins of Christianity a unique spin — following a streetwise hustler and religious skeptic in the Holy Land who, seeing the captivating power of Jesus Christ (Pinnock) and needed to clear some debts, attempts to become a Messiah himself. Along the way, he has chariot races with Mary Magdalene (Teyana Taylor), has his head aggressively pushed beneath the waters of the Jordan River by an unimpressed John the Baptist (Oyelowo) and gets a slap from the Virgin Mary (Woodard) for questioning her virgin status. And, like The Harder They Fall, the whole thing is backed by a soul and hip-hip-infused soundtrack composed by Samuel (with Jay-Z popping up on a track called “Forever”).
For Samuel, The Book of Clarence was born from a long-held desire to “bring back” the swords-and-sandals era epic in the vein of Ben Hur and Spartacus, movies he says “for some reason Hollywood stopped making.” And while The Harder They Fall was, in some part, about “color correction” and bringing to the forefront some of history’s real-life Black cowboys that had been ignored by cinema, he says The Book of Clarence is not there to make a statement and is more about creating a Biblical film that resembled his own neighborhood in London.
Speaking to The Music news ahead of the film’s world premiere on Wednesday, Oct. 11 (TriStar Pictures has set its U.S. release for Jan. 12), Samuel discusses comparisons to Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, why Idris Elba was on set but not in the film, hating himself for casting Pinnock as Jesus, how his The Harder They Fall star Regina King has become a “really great light” in his life, and dedicating the The Book of Clarence to King’s late son.
Please excuse the pun, but what was the genesis for The Book of Clarence?
I wanted to tell a story in the Biblical era that looked like the environment that I grew up in. I’m a huge fan of Westerns. I’m a huge fan of Biblical-era swords-and-sandals movies. Not just movies about the Bible but that era. So I just wanted to make a Biblical movie at least resembling the environment I grew up in.
Like The Harder They Fall, you’ve got a pretty amazing cast, again led by LaKeith. Did you tell him about this idea while making The Harder They Fall?
When I met LaKeith, I was in Mexico and we had a call for The Harder They Fall, and he had to stop the call halfway through to deal with something that was happening in his neighborhood. He said, “I’ll call you back in 15 minutes.” And the way he went from professional to kind of street at reception of this news…. I knew and at that moment I called my sister and was like “Tanya, I’ve found Clarence!” So all through the making of The Harder They Fall, I was telling LaKeith, “There’s something else we’re gonna do, but I’ll tell you later.” I knew it literally from the first conversation we had.
So was Clarence fully formed before you even started making The Harder They Fall or just an idea you’d had percolating for a while?
I wrote The Book of Clarence screenplay in full in 2017, but I’d been formulating it and making notes since 2003/2004 and starting penning little scenes in my head and writing songs. But everything came into script form in 2017.
I remember you saying for The Harder They Fall that you were writing the script at the same time as writing the score. Was it the same for this?
The exact same deal. I see music and I hear film. So as I’m writing the screenplay, I’m listening to the melody and the notes and the chords of the dialog and begin writing the score. So I’m formulating everything at once — the chicken came at the exact same time as the egg.
Back to the cast, LaKeith plays a very convincing Messiah. When he’s fully robed up, he looks incredible. I definitely would have followed him.
LaKeith is a generational talent. He’s a man of 1,000 faces. When he cries, you cry with him. When he laughs, you laugh with him. And I think it’s really important to find the protagonist that, as you see him, they take you along the journey with them. As soon as you lay eyes on Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, you’re on whatever ride he’s going on. And that’s the same feeling LaKeith brings.
And Nicholas Pinnock plays a great Jesus. How easy was that role to cast?
When I spoke to Nicholas, it was really easy. He’s an old friend of mine. So I didn’t want to cast him. I will say this openly – I did not want to cast Nicholas Pinnock as Jesus of Nazareth. But he is so brilliant. I met him talking about another role and he just started talking about the scripts and I was like “Oh no, now I have to cast him.” It’s really hard to cast someone that you know as a role that amazing. Selfishly, I just didn’t want to give it to him. I didn’t want to tell him that he’s that good. But he is. He’s one of my favorite actors in the world.
You know that the fact he’s played Jesus is going to feature prominently in his bio now? You’ve basically written it for him.
He stares at me now with a sense of “In your face, Jeymes.” It’s hard to look him in the eyes now that I’ve told him he’s that good.
You’re also good friends with Idris Elba. Wasn’t he upset that you didn’t give him the role?
No, Idris wasn’t upset. But he was on set with me. He flew out to Matera in Italy (where much of the film was shot) and was just hanging. He’s a very close and dear friend, so we’re always cooking ideas and collaborating on music and film. I can’t imagine shooting a movie where Idris isn’t on set somewhere. But he wasn’t in this movie, although he’ll be popping up in the Jeymes Samuel universe extremely soon.
In the last year alone we’ve had some right-wingers go slightly nuts over the concept of a black hobbit and a black little mermaid. How do you think they’re going to react to a film where not only is there a black Jesus, but there’s a black Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Judas, Mary and Joseph and basically all the big names of Christianity? Is it something you’re prepared for?
No, I just tell stories from a really pure and inclusive place. Contrary to how it may look, I never actually think about the color of these characters. I was just telling a story that just looks like the environment where I grew up. So for me, I think that my whole ethos toward telling stories and making period pieces is about inclusion. I never really think of the color that any of these characters were in real life. And that’s not a statement that I wanted to make with this movie. I just really want to show kids a Biblical era that kind of resembles the world we live in and the people that are around you growing up. And not just black kids — all children. To just make them feel, “Oh wow, I haven’t seen that before.”
With The Harder They Fall you said that Westerns had been traditionally a very white genre of filmmaking and that there had been prominent Black figures from that period of time that had been left out of the storytelling. So there was a purpose behind that film.
Yeah, there was a huge purpose behind The Harder They Fall. All the characters that are in that story are real Black cowboys that existed. But just as with The Harder They Fall, which was a Western, I wanted to make a film from that Biblical era and take those stories and put them alongside the Bible but not about the Bible. I really wanted to tell the story of a regular dude. But color correction wasn’t the motivation or intention behind Clarence. I think behind Clarence the intention is inclusion. And also, I selfishly wanted Biblical movies to be made again. Ben Hur isn’t about the Bible but it runs alongside it.
I’m no expert on the Biblical genre, but is The Book of Clarence the first where there’s been a whole lot of weed smoking, a conversation about masturbation and a scene where the Virgin Mary slaps someone for questioning her status as a virgin?
I don’t know, but I do know that it’s the first biblical movie of its kind where it shows the regular person and stays with the regular person. It’s just about a regular hustler in the hood trying to find his way. He makes these mistakes and gets himself into a lot of trouble, but in getting himself into trouble finds himself on the road of self-discovery, redemption and ultimately awakening. And I think it’s the first movie, one that’s a drama and not a straight comedy, that is about that regular dude.
But you must have had fun weaving in these prominent historical figures. The scene with Mary and Joseph and the conversation about whether or not she’s a virgin must have been great fun to write.
Yeah, it was absolutely amazing. In that scene, I wanted to stay with the thought process of a total disbeliever and then show his eventual journey into belief. As amazing as those things were to write, they were even more amazing to direct. Especially when you have you have Alfre Woodard and Brian Bovell. Brian Bovell is one of my favorite English actors of all time. He was in this show when I was six or something called Prospects, and it was about him and this other guy running around the streets of East London making absolute havoc of their circumstances. So when he turned up on set it was a moment where I wanted to cry. He meant so much to me as a child honestly felt that I owe his legacy a Biblical epic. I wanted to cry.
I noticed in the credits that you thank Regina King, who was in The Harder They Fall but not in this film. Was this for anything to do with The Book of Clarence.
Yeah, just with regards to us going back and forth and her being a sounding board for my stories. The entire movie is dedicated to her son [Ian Alexander Jr, who passed away in 2022], who was working with me on the music. Regina King is just a really great light in my life.
On the music front, with The Harder They Fall the song “Guns Go Bang” was given a major push for the Oscars and made it to the shortlist. Is there a track from The Book of Clarence that you think might get some Academy recognition?
I never make art with awards in mind. But I’d really like the song that ends the movie — it’s called “Nazareen” and doesn’t have any features on it, it’s an orchestral number with just my vocals — to be heard by as wide an audience as possible. People do respond to that song in a good way. So maybe that song will get a push and I really love performing it.
You had a number of collaborations on The Harder They Fall soundtrack, including Jay-Z and Kid Cudi. Are there any others on this?
In the film, you hear dub versions, but on the soundtrack, you’re gonna see a beautiful array of collaborators. There’s everyone from Shabba Ranks to Jorge Ben Jor, at 84 years old. You’re gonna hear one of the most beautiful soundtracks to behold, if I may say so.
Jay-Z produces again. Is he still your right-hand man and someone you send every idea to?
Yeah, Jay-Z’s my right-hand guide. Me and Jay are like Clyde and Clyde. I’m not gonna be Bonnie! Or Hardy and Hardy. I’m not gonna be Laurel! So we always collaborate and we always create in every one of our conversations. We’re both from similar backgrounds. He’s from Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. I’m from the Mozart Estate on Kilburn Lane in London. And every one of our conversations turns into us creating something. So he’s been riding with me for way over a decade and there’s not really a story at this point that I have in the chamber that he isn’t involved in. What is beautiful about Jay-Z is that people think collaborations are just in music. But he’s a diehard cinephile. Collaborating with Jay-Z is like breathing.
There’s obviously another very famous film set during the time of Jesus Christ and also following a regular person who isn’t the messiah. It’s a very different movie and a lot sillier, but were you a fan of The Life of Brian and did you try to ensure there weren’t any similarities?
The Life of Brian isn’t just one of my favorite films of all time, it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. But that wasn’t so much as an inspiration as Ben Hur, Spartacus, Samson and Delilah, the sword and sandals type of movies. The Life of Brian is a straight-up comedy. It’s like the ultimate series of sketches, much like Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But there’s nothing like a good dose of Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston on a Sunday when you’re chilling with your mum. And I wanted to replicate that feeling.
Having now done Western and Biblical epics, what is next in the Jeymes Samuel Universe? What other genres are you going to give your own unique twist?
I am such a huge fan of cinema, I don’t even see a genre that is alien. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the next film I do is set in the modern day, although I would still be in a particular genre. I’ll go back to the Old West — because I love Westerns. My purpose with The Book of Clarence is to show people that there’s no difference between the Biblical era and today. There’s no such thing as a Western. It’s just the geographical time and place the story is set in. So for me, while I love all the genres, there are no genres!