In 2005, NPR’s This American Life broadcast the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson’s struggles with his faith that divided a church during the late 1990s and put him in the crosshairs of religious folk after he questioned God’s intentions.
Director Joshua Marston brilliantly reimagines this narrative with Come Sunday, which is heading to Netflix after premiering at Sundance.
For the uninitiated, Bishop Carlton Pearson possessed a unique and charismatic preaching style that brought both black and white churchgoers to the Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Okla., during the 1990s. The crux of his preaching style was based on the concept of being saved and what one has to do to stay out of hell.
But one evening, Pearson happened to catch a program about the genocide in Rwanda that forced him to question the concept of damnation. When Pearson decides to bring his questions about a “vengeful God” and all of the possible contradictions to the church, his audience is stunned and appalled, and a mass exodus ensues.
Come Sunday is an excellently handled film that refuses to portray anyone as the villain and instead explores this paradox of what happens to a church when the leader’s faith has been shaken.
Marston has a magnificent cast to direct on this journey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an absolutely masterly performance as Pearson that could arguably rival his Oscar-nominated role in 12 Years a Slave. His internal struggle with the Bible and what he believes was a divine intervention translates beautifully on-screen. He chews up every scene he’s in, but he’s backed up by equally strong performances from Lakeith Stanfield, Condola Rashad and Martin Sheen.
The stage is set for this spiritual struggle early on when Pearson visits his elderly uncle Quincy (Danny Glover) in prison in hopes that his uncle is ready to be saved. However, he’s turned off that Quincy wants him to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf, using religion to earn sympathy points. Pearson, who is convinced that the path taken by the man who practically raised him should lead him directly to hell, refuses. Still, this by-the-books mentality doesn’t entirely sit right with Pearson, and the decision reverberates throughout the rest of the film.
Pearson meets with Oral Roberts (Sheen) in frustration that he’s unable to save those who are closest to him. However, he’s presented with Roberts’ story about the suicide of his own gay son and how he refused to accept it as an ultimate test of his faith. This leads to more questions than answers for Pearson, who, shortly afterward, has his own faith rocked to the core by the Rwandan genocide and sets him on a path to navigate the truth while still having to preach the good word to his congregation.
The sermon in which Pearson asks whether or not everyone is already saved is a powerful scene that Marston captures elegantly. With both Roberts and his manager-adviser Henry (a straight and narrow performance by Jason Segel) begging him to recant, Pearson refuses and doubles down on his assessment the following week by telling the attendees of Higher Dimensions, “The God that we worship, from the parts of the Bible that we focus on, that God is a monster.”
From that point, Pearson’s line is drawn in the sand, and it forces those who attend the church to choose sides. Suffice it to say, it’s not an easy choice for anyone involved.
“I grew up in a religious house and I struggled with spirituality, so this role spoke to me in that way,” said Stanfield—who portrays Reggie, a gay choir member who has his own struggle with the specter of eternal damnation—at a Sundance panel. “This movie is about a person going through a journey who has to confront conflicting beliefs and stand up in the face of insurmountable odds. I have a lot of respect for people that do that. Even though he could have everything taken away, he decided to take a stand.”
Reggie plays an integral part in Pearson’s spiritual journey, and the scenes that Stanfield and Ejiofor share are magnificent as the tortured soul’s undying adoration for his pastor, and their conflict regarding Scripture, creates some of the most intense moments in the film.
Rashad (the daughter of Ahmad and Phylicia Rashad) also turns in a strong performance as Pearson’s wife, Gina. She serves as Pearson’s biggest supporter and a very practical voice of reason. However, she is distant from the church because she doesn’t have the same convictions as her husband, which lends a strangers-in-the-struggle air to their relationship.
“What I learned from meeting with Mrs. Pearson was that she was never a victim of circumstance,” Rashad explained to The Root. “She’s also highly independent, and that didn’t quite meld with how the congregation thought she should conduct herself.”
Rashad’s performance is powerful in that she refuses to play the background to the quarrels between her husband and the church. She’s not a mere bystander in the conflict, and Rashad’s experience in the theater enables her to provide an exquisite nuance for a wife who often feels like the third wheel in a relationship where God is No. 1.
“You don’t need permission from an institution or anybody to have a divine connection with God,” Rashad said of the film’s message. “A personal connection can be very threatening to a lot of people. There’s nothing wrong with religion as a whole, but I do think that the institution can take it to another level.”
There will be a lot for audiences to unpack when Come Sunday debuts on Netflix in April. Considering that the church has long been a fixture in many African-American families, there will certainly be those who are turned off by Pearson’s inquiries. But for the millennial generation, who are extraordinarily diverse when it comes to spirituality—and at a time where it seems that everything in America is so polarizing and the nation is so conservative—Marston’s daring film hits all the right notes. In the end, Come Sunday is all about acceptance and tolerance and is handled in a way that doesn’t cast anyone as the villain, regardless of their beliefs.