Hollywood isn’t always so good at telling stories about religion. Too often, the narratives are too interested in either condemning or glorifying faith, religion, or some combination thereof, to delve into the nuances of a life of belief within an institution.
By resisting the urge to make any larger judgments about religion as a societal force, Come Sunday, a new Netflix biopic about the real-life Bishop Carlton Pearson from Maria Full of Grace director Joshua Marston, manages to get into those messier struggles of the balance of faith and religion. The result is a quietly contemplative character piece, grounded by a characteristically terrific performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor in the central role. At times the film may meander, but it never once loses momentum.
Come Sunday dramatizes the story of Bishop Pearson, who when confronted in 1998 with the death of his uncle (played by Danny Glover) and the ongoing tragedy of the Rwandan genocide, begins to publicly question the Pentecostal doctrine that those who do not believe in God go to Hell. The heretical claims tear apart his community and church, the Tulsa-based superchurch Higher Dimensions, forcing Bishop Pearson to confront his own priorities when it comes to his faith, his family, and his religion.
At its core, Come Sunday is an interpersonal drama, one that is intensely interested in the many relationships that make up Bishop Pearson’s life. Condola Rashad plays Gina Pearson, Carlton’s wife who struggles with her own duty to the church. Jason Segal, Stacey Sargeant, and Lakeith Stanfield all play core members of Carlton’s church team who react in different ways to their bishop’s radical revelations. Stanfield in particular stands out as Reggie, a closeted gay man whose church tells him that to love men is to go to Hell.
While Ejiofor’s Pearson is the planet around which all other characters orbit, the film does an impressive job articulating its supporting cast of characters. Even when Martin Sheen’s Dr. Oral Roberts is denouncing his dead gay son, the film gives him context and texture that allows the viewer to empathize with the character. There are no mustache-twirling villains here; only deeply religious men and women trying to honor their relationship to God and religion as they best know how. The viewer is given the space to judge which characters’ interpretations harm or hinder, if they should so choose, but Come Sunday is not interested in placing characters into a hierarchy of blessedness or morality.
Are we more merciful than God? What role does business play in organized religion? How much power should we give to our religion versus our faith? What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much? Come Sunday is too committed to its non-judgmental ways to explore any of these questions to the degree some viewers may crave. Instead it walks a safer, more character-driven path that leaves most of these questions open-ended. And perhaps that is its sweeping statement about religion: ideally, it’s not about answers; it’s about questions. Come Sunday leaves you gloriously questioning.