SYNOPSIS: From director Joshua Marston, Come Sunday stars Academy Award-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lakeith Stanfield, Jason Segel, Condola Rashad, and Martin Sheen. It's the moving story of Bishop Carlton Pearson's personal journey from leading a religious congregation to being labeled a heretic.
‘Come Sunday’ is a faith-based film, but it is of an entirely different breed compared to say ‘I Can Only Imagine’, ‘The Shack’ or ‘All Saints’, given how it deals not with conversion but with division.
At the heart of the movie is a fundamental schism within the different denominations of the Christian faith – does a person need to be saved in order to go to heaven? If so, does it mean that all those who have not encountered the faith and/or have not professed that they believe in Jesus Christ are doomed to go to hell? Does that mean therefore that the women and children of Africa who have never heard the Gospel are destined for hell? But if not, then what really does accepting the Lord mean? Does it mean that baptism and/or going to Church are inconsequential to whether one’s soul ends up in heaven? Is there then a hell at all for those who have sinned?
That was the conundrum which the high-profile African-American preacher Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) found himself confronting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one that would threaten his church, family and future. This was no ordinary minister mind you – the Pentecostal bishop was mentored and groomed by Oral Roberts (here played by Martin Sheen) of Oral Roberts University, had his own television show, filled stadiums, counselled presidents, and had even managed to blur the racial divide by attracting Whites into his congregation. But in the wake of his crisis of faith, Pearson saw his own church lose more than two-thirds its followers, found himself in opposition with his mentor and even the Joint Council of African-American Bishops, and was abandoned by his close friend and assistant Henry (Jason Segel) who subsequently established his own church nearby.
Based on a 2005 episode of NPR’s ‘This American Life’, director Joshua Marston and his screenwriter Marcus Hinchey mount a stirring but never sensational biopic of Pearson’s transformation. There are a couple of truly powerful scenes here – one where Pearson takes the pulpit with the expectation that he would recant his deviant interpretations, before having a 180-degree change of heart and mind and prompting an exodus of his angered flock; and another where Pearson turns the tables on the head of the Council at a tribunal he agrees to appear before to defend his newfound beliefs. But equally, one gets the distinct sense that the filmmakers have opted for restraint (than to be provocative), lest their movie be accused of being prejudicial; so instead of hyping the conflict with the other powerful members of the Evangelical community, the focus here is in fact on the personal toll it exacts on Pearson as well as those closest to him, namely his wife Gina (Condola Rashad) and his church’s gay worship leader Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield).
Largely though, the character study works, thanks to one of the finest performances of Ejiofor’s career. The British actor digs deep and disappears convincingly into the role of a charismatic preacher whose sheer authority and confidence is stripped away as he starts to question what he believes in. Some of his best scenes are with stage performer Rashad, who gives a compelling portrayal of a wife who transforms from quietly disgruntled at being sidelined and neglected to a pillar of strength and support for her husband. Ejiofor also shares a couple of deeply moving scenes with Stanfield, beautifully nuanced as a homosexual struggling to reconcile his own sexuality with his desire to walk the straight and narrow with God. To be sure, the filmmakers know this is yet another lightning rod within the church, but the inclusion of Stanfield’s invented character highlights why new churches preaching inclusivity (and apparently challenging age-old doctrine) have been springing up.
Like we said at the start, ‘Come Sunday’ isn’t your usual faith-based film, but it is also much, much better for it because of that. Granted, it is not an easy movie to sit through for believers and non-believers alike, the former because it may challenge some deeply-held convictions and the latter because it does demand some understanding of Church teachings. Yet it is an important movie that deserves to be seen and discussed, not only because it lays bare some of the hard truths that evangelical and Pentecostal Christians often refuse to acknowledge but also because it highlights the very contradictory nature of Biblical text if taken at face value. Just as how faith needs to be lived every other day including Sunday, this film that tries to reconcile doctrine and reality deserves to be seen any given day.
Review by Gabriel Chong