Capturing years and decades of a lifetime, and squeezing them in a two-hour time span seems almost impossible. For screenwriter Marcus Hinchey, it was something he felt compelled to do. Eight years ago, Hinchey was on a flight from Los Angeles to New York when he began listening to a 2005 episode of NPR’s This American Life. The episode he’d chosen was entitled “Heretics,” and followed the rise and fall of Tusla Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson. After years of preaching at his immensely popular and massive Higher Dimensions church (which also boasted a mix-race congregation), Bishop Pearson came to believe that everyone is already saved and that there is no hell. For his convictions, he would lose everything.
Hinchey has been in talks with This American Life producers Ira Glass and Alissa Ship about adapting some of their shows for film, but “Heretics” propelled him forward. “Within about 15 minutes I knew I wanted to write the film,” he explained to me in a quiet room tucked away from the noise and frenzy of the Sundance Film Festival. “I had never heard of anybody like Carlton. I grew up in a very different world than he did, but I’d had some experience with Pentecostal churches, and they never convinced me of very much. But when I heard him speak he had this incredible ability to go from scripture into an anecdote with so much humor, it was like listening to Richard Pryor.”
Hinchey set out to write the script for Come Sunday by spending as much time as possible with Bishop Pearson and his family. “By the time I landed I’d listened to the episode twice, and I knew that I really wanted to do it,” he recalled. “On the one hand you had this extraordinary character, and there are so few, and on the other hand, you had an almost archetypal story which is a man who gives up everything for what he believes in.”
Hinchey’s journey led him to Tulsa, Oklahoma—the buckle of the Bible belt. “People don’t ask you what you do for a living, people ask what church you go to,” he revealed. “It’s a very specific world. I spoke to many, many people. There are a lot of famous figures in the film, Oral Roberts (portrayed by Martin Sheen) being one. I had spoken to people who knew Oral; Oral has written an autobiography, there are biographies written about him — there was a lot to mine there. That was really the beginnings of the process. From there I came to rely on a friendship with Carlton Pearson that did really develop into something special for me.”
Hinchey’s bond with Bishop Pearson (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film) also allowed him to connect with the Bishop’s wife, Gina Pearson (portrayed by the incomparable Condola Rashad). The Tony-Award nominated actress grinned widely as I entered the door and embraced her. Draped in a furry black coat, she was ready to battle the harrowing weather in Park City, Utah. Like her character Gina Pearson, Rashad’s fiery personality fills the room even when she’s quietly sitting back an observing. For the 31-year-old, becoming a part of Come Sunday was a no-brainer especially after meeting the real-life Mrs. Pearson. “She was very concerned that she not be portrayed as a victim of circumstance because she wasn’t,” Rashad explained. “She said ‘No, I knew what life I was signing up for. I didn’t know it was going to be as hard as it was, but I knew.'”
To understand what it was like for Gina Pearson to become the First Lady of Higher Dimensions, you should know that when the Bishop was single, women would attend church in wedding gowns and accost him after service, claiming God had told them they were supposed to marry him. No one saw Gina coming.
“She felt that this was a man that was close to God, and she felt in herself that she wanted to be closer God,” Rashad explained. “I think the hardest part for her is that while she had so much respect for this man, he seemed to have so much time for everything and everyone else but her. She had to sacrifice what she needed as a woman and as a human being, for what she felt her purpose was. She went through a lot of confliction about that. Also, she is a very independent (and) very outspoken woman. Everybody else was just so in awe of him, but she would notice something and be like ‘That’s not going to work.’”
It was vital for Hinchey to bring Gina’s true presence to the screen through Rashad. He was able to get to the essence of who she was through the long hours he spent with her and Bishop Pearson. “What I started to understand was it was almost a love story in reverse,” he revealed. “When Gina came along it was incredibly controversial to the church. She explained it to me that she felt like the church was like a spoiled brat stepchild. It took so much attention away from their marriage very, very early on, that within the first six months they were almost estranged. So to create a story around these two people who when we meet them they’re estranged but through this epiphany, it starts to bring them together. What she sees in him, for the first time at least in her mind, is some truth — something that he actually believes in and for someone who’s honest and as determined as Gina, I think that was very important.”
Though she came on board just one month before Come Sunday began filming, Rashad was also able to form a bond with the Pearsons – Gina specifically. “What was really important was to show her strength and her love, her unconditional love, even though it wasn’t the most romantic setting –it’s a different kind of sense of love.,” she said.
Rashad’s artistic choices made for a magnificent performance. In Come Sunday, Gina’s support is vital in the Bishop’s choice to stick with his beliefs, despite the repercussions. “(Condola) managed to calibrate her performance that was so understated,” Hinchey explained. “There were so many choices I think she could have made that I think would have heightened the scene or brought more attention to her, but she just reined it in all the time.”
For Rashad, playing Gina Pearson is just a reminder of the continued and powerful presence of Black women. “Where I’m coming from, is more so about what we walk into the room with, what we walk into the room knowing, about our own worth, and not basing our worth on what someone else gives us,” she expressed. “As a Black woman, it has been this really interesting balance of holding my heritage, holding my roots, and also allowing myself to be human, before anything. That is something that I think is interesting but has not always been allotted to us. I feel like this is starting to happen, where we can actually exist without being like ‘We exist!’ We just exist. That’s what I’m excited to see, and I think that’s one thing that happens organically. I think we’re getting to the place where we can just be artists.”
Come Sunday debuted Sun. Jan. 21 at Sundance Film Festival.
The film will premiere April 13, 2018, on Netflix.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami