“Come Sunday” may be the perfect movie for Netflix. Too fair-and-balanced to have come from the faith-based community and far too churchy to have gotten the blessing of any studio, director Joshua Marston’s exceptional, serious-minded adaptation of a 2005 episode of NPR’s “This American Life” recognizes the dramatic and ultimately uplifting potential in the true story of a Pentecostal bishop who lost both his flock and the backing of church leaders after he began to question one of the core beliefs of his religion — namely, the notion that souls must be “saved” in order to avoid eternal damnation.
Had it been destined for a conventional theatrical release, “Come Sunday” likely would have bombed in the big-city markets where such indies begin their journey, never reaching the Heartland audiences who might appreciate it most. Rolling out on Netflix in April, however, “Come Sunday” will be available to millions of households in virtually every market as part of the standard $10 subscription, which means it could get seen by audiences who never would have spent $10 on a movie ticket (it’s been nearly two decades since Robert Duvall succeeded in reaching Evangelicals and art-house crowds alike with “The Apostle”).
For those who choose to sample “Come Sunday,” they’ll be rewarded not only by the compelling story of a devout Christian wrestling with his faith but also by one of the great screen performances of recent years, as “12 Years a Slave” star Chiwetel Ejiofor captures both the charismatic passion and softer-voiced introspective side of bishop Carlton Pearson, whose preaching style was unique enough to bring black and white worshipers together under the same roof. As bishop of Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa, Okla., Pearson preached to a packed congregation (and nationwide television audience) about the perils of hell and what they must do to enter heaven.
For complicated reasons, American storytellers tend to shy away from Christian characters. When religious leaders do feature in film and literature, they’re nearly always portrayed as hucksters and charlatans — call it the “Elmer Gantry” Effect, in which faith and hypocrisy so often go hand-in-hand. But “Come Sunday” is no satire: The reason “This American Life” producer Ira Glass wanted to revisit this particular story on film was because he recognized an entirely fresh and inherently gripping conflict in Pearson’s situation: Here was a sincere believer whose personal integrity jeopardized his ability to carry on as he always had.
In an early scene, Pearson goes to visit his uncle Quincy (Danny Glover) in prison, hoping that he is ready to be “saved,” only to realize that Quincy wants him to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf. Pearson shows his uncle tough love, but is later devastated by what happens to Quincy, whom he’s convinced is bound for hell. The impact of that encounter echoes throughout the rest of the film — versions of which are shared by other Evangelical leaders, including his personal mentor, Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen), who describes Pearson as his “black son.”
And then one night, while watching a program about the Rwandan genocide, Pearson experiences a change of heart, believing that God spoke to him — a divine connection Marston doesn’t actually recreate on screen, but makes clear that Pearson himself believes to have happened. Though he knows the scripture inside-out (Pearson allowed the production to use his own Bible, so full of notes, “I wrote in it more than God did,” he joked at the film’s Sundance premiere), the bishop shares his epiphany in church the following Sunday: What if everything they believe about damnation is wrong? What if there is no hell? What if “everyone is already saved,” including the non-believers, by the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross?
Pearson’s sermon sets the church into an uproar. His right-hand adviser feels betrayed (a composite figure solemnly played by Jason Segal, who checks his comedic tendencies as completely as his character might suppress forbidden sexual thoughts), religious talk-show hosts are scandalized, and Roberts makes a special visit, imploring Pearson to recant his comments in his next sermon. Instead, after a week of soul-searching, Pearson doubles down, telling his followers, “The God that we worship, from the parts of the Bible that we focus on, that God is a monster … worse than Hitler.”
And so the defections begin, as outraged members of the congregation abandon Higher Dimensions for other churches, including one that Segal’s character, though filled with regret, is compelled to open across town. In what looks to be an ambush, church leaders invite Pearson to defend himself before the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops.
Almost any other filmmaker would have played these scenes differently, hyping the conflict brewing between Pearson and the most powerful members of the Evangelical community. But Marston, working from Marcus Hinchey’s sensitive and remarkably nuanced script, invites measured introspection from both his characters and the audience.
It wouldn’t be accurate to describe “Come Sunday” as understated per se (Pearson and his church peers are wonderfully articulate in expressing their beliefs), and yet, there’s an efficiency to the dialogue that gives Marston the space to let the characters’ words sink in. And though Hinchey delivers three big surefire crowd-pleasing scenes straight from the Aaron Sorkin playbook — Pearson starts to recant, then goes off-script; his “you’re out of line” presentation before a tribunal; and the moment he musters the confidence to proselytize (and sing) again — Marston downplays them with the same restraint he shows the rest of the film, letting things simmer, instead of bringing them to an immediate boil.
While Pearson forces himself to reexamine the doctrine he’s been preaching all these years, his wife Gina (Condola Rashad) steps out of his shadow and becomes one of his fiercest champions — which helps to balance the loss of support from church leaders. How dare he reinterpret scripture, just because he refuses to believe that God would punish those who haven’t been saved? In a touching scene, Roberts candidly shares the pain of losing his eldest child, who shot himself shortly after coming out as gay, and the grief it causes him to imagine his son in hell.
The struggle gay Christians experience to reconcile their homosexuality with their faith plays an important role in the film, as one of Pearson’s most loyal believers is Higher Dimensions’ half-closeted, HIV-positive musical director, Reggie, whom Lakeith Stanfield beautifully plays as a tortured soul struggling behind a deceptively calm façade. Like the true-life evangelist that inspired it, “Come Sunday” preaches a message of tolerance and inclusivity that couldn’t be more relevant in a country grappling with its newfound conservatism.