Producers: Jeymes Samuel, Jay-Z, James Lassiter and Tendo Nagenda Director: Jeymes Samuel Screenplay: Jeymes Samuel Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Omar Sy, Anna Diop, R.J. Cyler, Caleb McLaughlin, Teyana Taylor, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Babs Olusanmokun, Nicholas Pinnock, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, David Oyelowo, Micheal Ward, Tom Glynn-Carney, James McAvoy, Chase Dillon, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alfre Woodard Distributor: Sony/TriStar Pictures
The fact that audacity is not enough is proven by this pseudo-Biblical parody by Jeymes Samuel, which aims to be both radical and reverential but winds up a handsome but muddled misfire, appropriating the passion story for a garbled attempt to, among other things, universalize black oppression. Samuel scored with “The Harder They Fall,” which peopled a classic western template with a largely African-American cast, in 2021, but his decision to take a similar approach to the “Ben-Hur” epic form to deliver a message about racial injustice within a parable about faith versus reason proves ambitious but disjointed .
He begins with an obvious nod to William Wyler’s Oscar-winner, a chariot race between Mary Magdalene (trimly athletic Teyana Taylor) and Clarence (LaKeith Stanfield), a hustler in need of money, through the cliff-side cobbled streets of Jerusalem–a sequence impressively shot by Rob Hardy in Matera, Italy (whose locations production designer Peter Walpole employs nicely), and excitingly edited by Tom Eagles. The date is 33 A.D., when Jesus (Nicholas Pinnock) has reached the pinnacle of his fame among the populace.
Clarence, driving frantically with his loyal friend Elijah (RJ Cyler) as a terrified passenger, is hoping that a victory will fill his pockets—he has a bet on the outcome—but when the race careens into an area of the city called Gypsy Town, he’s waylaid with a drug-drenched dart fired by a young gang leader (Chase Dillon) and crashes. Now he’s deeply in debt to Jedidiah the Terrible (Eric Kofi-Abrefa), who has a private army of gladiators (and whose sister, played by Anna Diop), Clarence is in love with), and is desperate to find a way out of his predicament.
His first thought involves his brother Thomas (also played by Stanfield), who has abandoned their mother (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to become one of Jesus’ disciples (or, as they’re called here, apostles). He thinks that, though he considers Jesus a fraud, if he’s accepted as a thirteenth apostle Jedidiah might forgive what he owes. But when he approaches John the Baptist (David Oyelowo) to be baptized, he gets slapped rather than immersed, and Thomas is offended by his suggestion; Judas (Michael Ward) is even more sarcastically dismissive.
So while high on weed (he’s actually floating) Clarence literally has a light bulb go off over his head. Why not become a messiah himself? Jesus is just a trickster, he figures, and a consummate con-man like himself can do even better. So after visiting Jesus’ mother (Alfre Woodard) for advice on how to conjure fake miracles—she tells him off royally, especially when he mocks the idea of an immaculate conception—he proceeds on his own. He goes to Jedidiah with a wildly modern message of knowledge over belief and demands that he release his gladiator slaves in the name of human decency. Jedidiah offers to do so if Clarence defeats his best in one-on-one battle—Barabbas (Omar Sy). What follows is a “Spartacus”-inspired seriocomic combat scene that results in the freedom-loving Barabbas joining Clarence and Elijah as the core of Clarence’s new, but surprisingly successful, messiah movement.
Meanwhile Clarence, along with the rest of the local population, is mistreated by the occupying Roman legions, particularly a brutal tribune (sallow-faced Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and his arrogant baby-faced lieutenant (Tom Glynn-Carney), who are executing the orders of Pontius Pilate (James McAvoy) to arrest Jesus and all the other self-proclaimed messiahs running around Jerusalem. Eventually Clarence is taken prisoner and crucified along with his fellow messiahs, but not before his testing before Pilate takes a surprising twist and his own cynicism turns into belief.
The movie trades in such juxtapositions that mix humor with sincerity, as when Jesus is shown intervening in the stoning of Mary Magdalene but the episode ends with a throwaway allusion to Jezebel. The general movement, though, is from spoof to piety, although even in the final reel Samuel returns to his use of the passion story to comment on black oppression by inserting a rather odd episode featuring Benedict Cumberbatch to ridicule how western iconography came to portray Jesus as a blue-eyed white guy with windswept brown locks. Even Samuel’s music score is bifurcated, alternating between the sort of soaring uplift that marked the epic scores of a Miklós Rózsa or Alfred Newman and anachronistically contemporary bits, some in exotic but modern dances in ancient night spots.
Samuel has assembled an impressive cast for the film, and while laid-back Stanfield, brawny Sy and genial sidekick Cyler dominate, the others contribute solid support; all have the task of handling both humorous and more intense moments, and acquit themselves as best as the script allows.
But in the end Samuel’s attempt to fashion a quasi-Biblical epic that juggles jokes with serious themes works only sporadically; the disparate ingredients never make for a fully satisfying whole.