Review: Chiwetel Ejiofor brings a preacher’s doubts to life in the stirring ‘Come Sunday’
A moving and intelligent drama about a schism that tore an American church apart, “Come Sunday” spends 105 minutes contemplating the nature of eternity. That is its accomplishment and, inevitably, something of a limitation. But for its engrossing duration, and perhaps for some time afterward, it compels the viewer to ponder the kinds of questions more often heard from a pulpit than from a movie or TV screen.
If Jesus Christ was an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, what level of human acceptance is required to ensure one’s salvation? Would a truly loving God send nonbelievers to hell, even those who have never heard the gospel? These questions are invariably destined to inspire indifference from some and impassioned arguments from others.
As for myself, I couldn’t help but flash back on my own heated high-school arguments with atheists and fellow believers alike, as we played out our own earnest, circular variation on the “Is Gandhi in hell?” debate.
The Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson was one of those high-profile Christian leaders who, in the eyes of his sharpest critics, ultimately arrived at the wrong answers. “Come Sunday,” which revisits the story of Pearson’s very public rise and fall, isn’t so certain.
Adapted by Marcus Hinchey from “Heretics,” a three-part story that aired on the public radio show “This American Life” in 2005, the movie places its sympathies with Carlton not because his beliefs are unassailable, but because they stem from a willingness to ask uncomfortable questions.
With appreciable sensitivity and intellectual curiosity, the director Joshua Marston turns public and private spaces — a sanctuary where a congregation sits angrily divided, an office where a pastor collapses in anguished prayer — into zones of spiritual and emotional confusion.
In 1998, Carlton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is at the height of his ministry at Higher Dimensions Evangelistic Center, one of the largest churches in Tulsa, Okla. Thousands gather each week to hear his sermons, which prove enthralling in their scholarly erudition and lively humor, and which invariably lead to ecstatic outbursts of prayer, worship, healing and deliverance. Marston shoots these services with a calm, steady camera that captures, but never surrenders to, an atmosphere charged with intense religious feeling.
Carlton’s theology is a stirring, straightforward blend of easy grace and hard truth, fueled by a genuine fear for the souls of humanity: His belief in a righteous God also accounts for his belief in a fiery hell, where those who do not accept Christ in the here and now will be doomed to spend eternity. But while Ejiofor’s superb performance emphasizes the preacher’s larger-than-life stature and charismatic (in every sense) nature, the actor also makes Carlton a recognizably flawed, human-scaled figure.
Some of the best scenes in “Come Sunday” show us the banal, behind-the-scenes operations at Higher Dimensions, where everyday stresses and disagreements intrude as they would in any workplace. Some of the recurring issues involve Carlton’s nervous, conscientious business partner, Henry (Jason Segel, playing very well against type), whom the preacher loves like a brother, and a harried but hard-working assistant, Nicky (Stacey Sergeant).
Nearly all those tensions are exacerbated to some degree by Carlton’s marriage to Gina (a sharp Condola Rashad), who outwardly supports her husband but bitterly resents her prescribed role in a marriage as carefully orchestrated as an Easter Sunday service. But Gina’s relative outsider status makes it easier for her to support Carlton when he experiences a dramatic theological reversal. Believing that God has spoken to him, he begins preaching what will become known as “the gospel of inclusion,” claiming that salvation is extended to all, whether one believes in Christ or not.
This proves impossible for much of Carlton’s congregation to swallow, and before long many of them are leaving the church and/or decrying him as a heretic. Particularly displeased is his longtime mentor, the legendary Pentecostal preacher Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, both affectionate and steely), who openly refers to Carlton as “my black son” before things start to go awry.
“Come Sunday” doesn’t delve too deeply into the racial dynamics at play at Higher Dimensions, where one of the most prominent African American preachers of his generation oversees a large, diverse congregation. But the movie is careful to suggest that public opinion of Carlton, although heavily polarized, doesn’t divide cleanly along ethnic lines. Certainly that’s true with regard to the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops, who ultimately place one of their own on trial.
Marston has made worthy, far-flung dramas about Colombian drug mules (“Maria Full of Grace”) and Albanian honor feuds (“The Forgiveness of Blood”), and he approaches the salvation debate from his usual position of respectful, somewhat dispassionate empathy. The filmmaking is seamless, sometimes to the point of blandness; the respectfully muted approach is underscored by a visual palette consisting of many literal shades of gray (the cinematography is by Peter Flinckenberg).
At times Marston’s reticence can feel like an implicit acknowledgment of his position as a cultural outsider. (He acknowledged this more directly onstage after the film’s recent Sundance premiere, noting, “I was raised Jewish. I’m not Pentecostal … yet.”) Still, he might have done well to push both the filmmaking and the discourse a bit further, to rise to the challenge of his characters’ soul-baring honesty.
One of the picture’s most affecting performances comes from Lakeith Stanfield as Reggie, the church’s organist and worship leader, whose attempts to reconcile his faith and his homosexuality bring out a compassionate but conflicted response from Carlton. There’s so much beautifully understated feeling in this subplot that you wish it stood more completely on its own, rather than merely facilitating Carlton’s shift in perspective.
The value of that shift, whether or not one agrees with Pearson’s universalist conclusions, is that it forced a widespread reconsideration of beliefs and assumptions that have a way of hardening into complacency. Do churches exploit the natural human fear of damnation when spreading a message generally thought of as Good News? Does a strict, exclusive view of salvation wind up turning faith into something overly transactional? In Carlton’s own words: “What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?”
In its pursuit of ideological even-handedness and narrative expedience, “Come Sunday” doesn’t always propound or dramatize these questions perfectly. Nor, to its credit, does it pretend to have any of the answers. But its willingness to dwell in its own uncertainty makes it awfully hard to cast aside. It’s odd how effectively the movie winds up accomplishing what some of the best sermons do — heightening our compassion, stirring our emotions and intermittently earning our awe.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: iPic, Westwood; streaming on Netflix
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