Matthew 4:16: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” That Bible passage was written about Jesus Christ’s return from Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist, but it could just as easily have preordained the glory of Jesus Christ’s return to movie screens after the pre-Easter rash of faith-based faff like “I Can Only Imagine” and “God’s Not Dead: Light in Darkness.”
Now that the lord hath risen, the quality of movies about him is set to rise as well. While Paul Schrader’s transcendent “First Reformed” is still waiting in the wings, “Maria Full of Grace” director Joshua Marston’s safe but stirring “Come Sunday” is a big step back towards grace, and a necessary reminder that spiritual crises are always more engaging for the questions they ask of God than the answers they put in His mouth.
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Based on a true story (and inspired by a 2005 episode of “This American Life”), “Come Sunday” dramatizes the remarkable transformation of an evangelical minister who made himself into a pariah from the pulpit of his own church. A graduate of Oral Roberts University — where he was mentored and groomed by Oral Roberts, himself — Carlton Pearson approached the millennium as one of the most prominent black bishops in America, a powerful speaker whose Tulsa congregation was special for how it blurred the racial divide that separated the world beyond its walls. He filled stadiums and counseled presidents, preaching a gospel of fear and damnation. He was a human tempest of love and hellfire, as the two elements fueling the energy inside of his soul like a hydrogen bomb.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what might be the finest performance of his extraordinary young career, articulates the full complexity of Pearson’s faith. We first meet him in 1998, when he’s already on top of the world — so close to God that he felt a personal duty to share His love with the world and save perfect strangers from the cruel fate of their sins. If you happened to sit next to him on a plane, he would try to awaken you to the Lord because he was sincerely petrified of the alternative. “I knew this woman was going to hell if I didn’t do something about it,” Pearson tells a mega-church crowd about a lawyer he met on a recent flight home. And while Ejiofor embraces the huckster-like sliminess that sticks to rich men of the cloth, his earnestness is something to behold. It’s not the blind zealotry of cult — it’s human and malleable. That’s what gets him into trouble.
A moving parable of personal growth that feels newly relevant in a time of stagnant tribalism, “Come Sunday” hinges on the transformative moment of failure that inspires Pearson to augment his beliefs. It happens after he visits an incarcerated uncle (Danny Glover), whose prison sentence has just been extended for six years due to a drug infraction; the minister is asked to put in a good word for his family member, but Pearson refuses. He refuses to help spring someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
A few days later, the uncle hangs himself. Even Pearson’s mom can’t understand how he could turn his back on a blood relative. Add that to the millions of innocent Rwandans he sees being slaughtered on the evening news, and the Pentecostal thought leader suddenly finds himself talking back to the voice he hears from on high. Or perhaps — as some of his congregants soon begin to suggest — that voice is coming from somewhere deep below.
It’s fascinating to watch the seeds of doubt sow their way through Pearson’s church as he begins to question the vengefulness of his savior, and the role that divine punishment plays in the Christian doctrine. “Are we more merciful than God?” Pearson asks, wondering about his own capacity for forgiveness. Screenwriter Marcus Hinchey keys in on the bravery required for a shepherd to out himself as a born-again searcher, as well as the loving confusion (not contempt) that it inspires from his flock. Jason Segel is particularly instrumental as a devout assistant whose allegiance to Pearson can’t survive this challenge to his faith. Like many people of religious conviction, Segel’s character turns to God for understanding, not uncertainty, and it hurts him to spurn his friend. The fraying bond between them helps galvanize Pearson’s struggle, effective shorthand in a film that can’t decide how the minister’s change of heart should reflect on the those who don’t agree with it.
The film’s evangelicals aren’t painted as saints or ideological monsters (a stark contrast from how they’re rendered in most secular cinema), but the script is still too busy enshrining Pearson as a hero to seriously reckon with the people who label him a heretic. The broadsided digs at Oral Roberts — however accurate — oversimplify how difficult it must have been for “the black son he never had” to embrace a new gospel of inclusion. Played by Martin Sheen as a man who forgives all of his failings as a test from God, Roberts is the closest thing that “Come Sunday” has to a villain.
Hinchey is more invested in the sweep of Pearson’s story than he is in the nitty-gritty of his awakening, and Marston does nothing to combat that. His flat, purely functional direction may go unnoticed on Netflix, but watching “Come Sunday” on the big screen reveals an ambivalence that dilutes the film’s ambiguity. While Ejiofor is sweating bullets in the wilderness, agonizing over every line of scripture, Marston retreats into the stuff of biopic 101, keeping a respectful distance from Pearson while the movie offloads much of his pain into the church’s tortured gay musical director (Lakeith Stanfield, soaring over the material).
“What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?” Pearson asks, his question hanging over the rest of the film to come. But while “Come Sunday” provides a much-appreciated opportunity to reflect on that notion, Marston errs by flattening Pearson’s quest into the stuff of a standard hero’s journey. The director minimizes the fear that his subject conquers, as well as the love that he finds in the rubble. The movie that’s happening in Ejiofor’s eyes is far more wracked and compelling than the one that Marston shows us through his own.
“Come Sunday” will be available to stream on Netflix on April 13th.