Following a Sundance Film Festival debut in January, Netflix unveiled Come Sunday, its true-life religious story of the Rev. Carlton Pearson, over the weekend on its streaming service and in some theaters. I caught it Sunday (naturally), but the low-energy dramatics didn’t grab me, with the exception of the lead performance from the always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor as Pearson, a media-age preacher caught up in a crisis of conscience.
Based on This American Life’s segment entitled “Heretics” that focused on Pearson and the controversial decision to tell his flock that Hell doesn’t exist, director Joshua Marston (who made an impressive first film in 2004 with Maria Full of Grace but has largely worked in television since) and screenwriter Marcus Hinchey struggle to give the compelling true story of Pearson some much-needed dramatic mojo. A little more life should have been poured into the biopic which, appropriately for Netflix if not Sundance, plays more like a TV movie. As I say though in my video review above, it is the dedicated work of Ejiofor that makes this worth watching.
Pearson is the charismatic preacher who presides over the Higher Dimensions ministry in Tulsa, OK. It is one of those massive churches, complete with TV cameras, a huge gospel choir, and mega congregation that latches on to every word of Pearson’s towering sermons — until they don’t. An unfortunate visit with a prisoner relative (Danny Glover) trying to get parole with Pearson’s help doesn’t go well, and the man ends up killing himself shortly afterwards. There is guilt about that but, also, after watching scenes of African children starving, he has an epiphany and battle with God, wondering what kind of God could allow this suffering, as well as even the possibility of a Hell. He tells the congregation that Hell doesn’t exist, setting off a crisis for the business of the church as well as outrage from his followers who begin to ostracize him.
This leads to a rift with his friend and church manager (Jason Segel), and the aforementioned crisis of conscience. Scenes with his mentor and spiritual guidance counselor Oral Roberts (an excellent Martin Sheen, in for a few scenes) are well played and demonstrate how carefully — and politically — the cards have to be played in this game to succeed. All of this also causes great conflict and consternation with Pearson’s wife (Condola Rashad) as his marriage starts to go to hell (figuratively speaking, of course). Then there is the subplot involving church organist Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), who is revealed to be HIV-positive. This section, including a moving scene later in the film between Pearson and Reggie, also reveals the existing hypocrisy involving gay members of the church.
Stanfield is also standout here, but the film is just too uneven in tone and message to be wholly effective despite offering an intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of one of these huge religious enterprises; only the converted will be totally engaged. Others may struggle to keep their eyes open with Marston’s uninspired direction, but Ejiofor does everything possible to keep us interested. Sometimes a little more Elmer Gantry can be a good thing. Producers are Ira Glass, Julie Goldstein, Alissa Shipp and James D. Stern.
One other note to Netflix: Please stop cutting off the end credits to promote some other movie on your service. You are not a broadcast network that has to keep us tuned in to whatever is next. Flipping to a trailer for some French comedy almost immediately as the credits rolled and Marston’s name appeared is not cool — for either the filmmakers or the audience. Can you say annoying?
Do you plan to see Come Sunday? Let us know what you think.