Religion is one thing, but faith is something else entirely. In 1998, Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson had a revelation about his faith and his understanding of the word of God that rattled him to his core. His new radical beliefs rippled through his life so abruptly that he lost everything he once held dear to him. Based on Bishop Pearson’s life and a 2005 episode of NPR’s This American Life entitled "Heretics," director Joshua Marston’s arresting Come Sunday forces its audience to look inward and evaluate what we truly believe.
A superb Chiwetel Ejiofor takes on the cadence and stature of the Tusla-based minister who was able to fill the pews of his massive Higher Dimensions church each Sunday with both black and white parishioners. Deeply committed to capturing the period and the environment of the Bible Belt, Marston hones in on everything from the frenzy of the evangelical movement to the eclectic style of the late ‘90s. His attention to detail, even filming the bishop’s worn and written in Bible, made the film realistic. Religion can be a difficult subject for Hollywood to tackle, but in his beautifully nuanced portrayal, Ejiofor captures a man who risked everything for the chance to speak his truth.
Amid the Rwandan genocide and grappling with the death of his beloved uncle (Danny Glover) who never gave his life to the Lord, Bishop Pearson hears God’s voice and has an epiphany. He believes that everyone is already saved and that there is no hell. On the pulpit one faithful Sunday he declares, “The God that we worship, from the parts of the Bible that we focus on, that God is a monster … worse than Hitler.” At the time, Bishop Pearson was affectionately referred to as Oral Robert’s “black son” in his community. His revelation, therefore, would crack his world open.
It’s not just Ejiofor who is captivating in this film, Condola Rashad is masterful as his often overlooked wife, Gina Pearson. A reluctant first lady and an outsider, Rashad presents a woman who continually sacrifices her needs for the church. Subverting the image of the meek and docile wife, Gina voices her opinions and ideas even when they aren’t popular. Rashad’s restraint in the role is what allows Gina’s strength to shine. When everyone else abandons Bishop Pearson, Gina remains steadfast, loyal and at his side — urging him to press forward despite the obstacles.
Another central theme in the film is the intersection of the LGBTQ community and Christianity — a crossroads that many folks are reluctant to examine. Atlanta star Lakeith Stanfield stars as Reggie, Higher Dimensions’ musical director and one of Bishop Pearson's most faithful followers. Based on a real-life young man who lost his life to HIV/AIDS, Stanfield plays the continually troubled young man who sees the bishop as a father figure. It’s a role and relationship that further pushes Bishop Pearson toward a message of inclusiveness and tolerance.
The film’s sole weak spot is perhaps that it's too balanced. Those who are deeply religious will probably be put out by Bishop Pearson's story as a whole, just like those who abandoned him twenty years ago. In contrast, those who are already apprehensive of religion might view the film as melodramatic and preachy. Still, there is an audience that walks that line who will surely find something worthwhile in this extraordinary tale.
In the one hour and 45-minute film, Marston, a complete outsider to this environment, captured the engrossing tone and sensitivity that he found in that 30-minute episode of This American Life so many years ago. As Come Sunday comes to a close, you’ll undoubtedly have more questions than answers, but that is why the film works so beautifully. Instead of preaching to his audience, Marston allows us all the space to listen and absorb the bishop's story. What we do from there is up to us.
Come Sunday debuts Friday, April 13, on Netflix. Martin Sheen and Jason Segel also star as Oral Roberts and Bishop Person’s right-hand adviser respectively.
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.