What it's about: Bishop Carlton Pearson [Chiwetel Ejiofor] is a prominent preacher with powerful friends and a large congregation. After contemplating the plight of starving and slaughtered black people in Africa, Pearson can't comprehend how God would condemn these people to hell just for not being Christian and so he sermonizes his doubts during Sunday service. These controversial ideas are met with shock and disgust. His words are parsed and picked apart. Even his closest confidants are unsure of his intentions and changes in doctrine philosophy. Pearson believes he has been spoken to by God, but those around him are sure he has been tricked by the devil. His continued and strengthened belief that hell does not exist leads him to further ostracization, threatening his relationships and status.
Pearson's intentions are good. He doesn't want to judge the unfortunate or believe that a loving God would just them, too. Based on how his positions are articulated in Come Sunday, I can understand why they are misinterpreted. The film's dramatic portrayal also speaks to me as a double-standard that can exist in organized religion -- that a person can live a clean life or become persecuted but can be condemned [not just by God, but by regular people] because they are missing a specific thing that may be entirely out of their philosophical grasp.
Some of Come Sunday's narrative drama is a bit didactic. Perhaps this is exactly how these events happened [I don't doubt this is true] but tensions are raised because the characters simply aren't listening to each other or they don't make their arguments in a compelling way. There seems to be times when Pearson could more accurately state his position as friends and partners jump to the basest, broadest interpretations. There is a desperate need for more nuance at times, though that would make for a more difficult drama.
Come Sunday is full of challenging questions but I just different feel challenged by it.
The centerpiece scene, the second large congregation scene where Pearson gets a chance to clarify his statement that hell does not exist, is as difficult to watch as it is thrilling. There are so many thematic going through it on top of Ejiofor's dynamic performance.
The racial aspects of this scene are immediately apparent. Earlier in the film we're told that Pearson's congregation is special because it has brought together both white and black parishioners. The first people to raise their voice or stand up against Pearson are all white (including Oral Roberts, who is portrayed by Martin Sheen). There is also the implication that these are the people with the money, power, and influence, which quickens complications.
The most compelling character in the film is Pearson's wife Gina [Condola Rashad, known from Billions]. She isn't a true believer like her husband and also pushes against being the typical trophy wife. But you also see her great love for Carlton during his tough test. She didn't ask for this situation but her relationships and status are damaged by it. Rashad gives a strong performance in what certainly could have been an overlooked character.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is expectedly good in the lead role. The actor's showmanship is on display immediately as Pearson is a pure entertainer. He sings, he charismatically cracks jokes, he's the kind of leader you understand can bring people who different backgrounds together. Later in the film, though, Ejiofor's ability to quietly display grief and the internal struggle is equally, if not more, important.
Moving into the third act, Come Sunday begins to build what seems to be the final dramatic conflict. Pearson is invited to speak to [perhaps debate] his philosophy to a council of African American religious leaders. Those who have held their support see this as an ambush that could completely cripple his place in the field, but Pearson is stubborn and accepts confrontation. I was excited where this was leading, hoping that this would be what I was looking for throughout Come Sunday: a more sure-handed and thorough examination of philosophical ideas. Unfortunately, the scene is fairly minor in its runtime, though it is clearer in theme.