Come Sunday movie review: Chiwetel Ejiofor is pitch perfect as a preacher facing a crisis of faith

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay

Apr,17 2018 19:08:05 IST

3.5/5

Soaked in religious fundamentalism, and dripping with dogmas of faith, Come Sunday is a film that is not easy to watch if you do not believe in the orthodox messages of the Bible that talk about heaven, hell, salvation and punishment. Director Joshua Marston (who directed the absolutely brilliant Maria Full of Grace) attempts to tell the story of popular evangelist Carlton Pearson in such a manner that we are forced to sit through all that orthodoxy to get to the more human parts of an extraordinary tale. Which is good, because anything else would have been just a glossed up and phoney version of a true story.

Living and working in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Carlton Pearson is a renowned minister appointed by the Church as part of the Pentecostal movement, and is immensely popular among his followers which include both black and white people, despite the bishop himself being African-American. A man of deep faith, he travels around the country preaching the word of Jesus Christ, and his charisma and empathy lead him to restore the faith of even complete (and initially unsure) strangers he bumps into. When an old uncle (Danny Glover in a scene stealing cameo) requests him to write him a recommendation note in order to save him from a revoked parole, he refuses, offering the old man his prayers instead — such are the bishop’s strict beliefs and principles. He is ably supported by a team of loyal followers — his public relations officer Henry (played by Jason Segel), his efficient secretary Nicky (Stacey Sargeant) and his young and talented organist Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield), who was sent to Pearson by Reggie’s Catholic mother upon the discovery that her son is gay.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in a still from Come Sunday. Image courtesy Netflix

Chiwetel Ejiofor in a still from Come Sunday. Image courtesy Netflix

At the height of his popularity, Pearson stumbles upon the misery of the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and he has a moment of epiphany. He begins questioning everything that has been written about the mercy of God, and after a lot of reflection, comes to the conclusion that the scriptures must be wrong, and that everyone — including those who have sinned — must receive God’s unconditional love, and must be accepted in heaven. Naturally, this does not go well with either his followers, or the rest of the members of the clergy. Before he knows it, Carlton Pearson finds himself cast out from the community, and abandoned by everyone — including his mentor, Dr Oral Roberts (played by Martin Sheen), one of the most influential and popular televangelists in the United States, and who once called Pearson his ‘black son’. Finally, Pearson realises that it is only his wife (played beautifully by Condola Rashad) — an ‘outsider’, and someone who he himself never quite believed in — who stays with him, teaching him another valuable lesson about life.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, Amistad, Dirty Pretty Things) gives what is easily his career best performance as the once devout and later questioning preacher who faces the dilemma of believing what a holy book tells him and what he believes is the very voice of God. Once again, it is not an easy crisis of faith to overcome, and is reminiscent of the central conflict of Pankaj Kapoor’s Pandit Chaturvedi in Bhavna Talwar’s brilliant 2007 debut film Dharm. As with the latter story, Pearson finds years and years of religious teachings and beliefs challenged by a single question — what if our interpretation of the word of God has been wrong all along? That this illumination occurs to a messenger of God makes the story even more interesting. Ejiofor successfully brings the trauma of Pearson to his performance, and in several scenes, it spills over and out of the screen to us, who can’t help but feel a deep sense of sympathy for him.

Despite all its beautiful moments, though, the film does have its weak moments, and it is difficult to ignore them. For instance, the film talks about the necessity of feeling ‘love’ for God, instead of ‘fear’, but fails to address the all-important question — what if someone chooses to stop feeling love for God, to believe in God? What happens to the theory of universal reconciliation then? But one must also remember that within the scope of the film, these are questions that are difficult to raise. Despite this, the fault exists, it is there.

Another problem with the film is the introduction of the side story with Pearson’s accompanist Reggie, who struggles with his own demons till he is diagnosed with a terminal disease, leading him to accept his homosexuality rather than fight it. While the rest of the story is true, Reggie’s character is a fictitious one and seems like a forced inclusion that the film could have done without.

But overall, one has to admit that Carlton Pearson’s story is a fascinating one. It is the story of a man who, despite decades of being instilled with a certain set of values, was able to break free of the chains he had put around his own ankles, leading us to ask ourselves — why, then, can’t we?

Come Sunday is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Apr 17, 2018 19:08 PM