“Come Sunday you will make all of this right.” The pointed threat comes from evangelist Oral Roberts in an icy performance from Martin Sheen. The subject is Roberts’ protégé, Bishop Carlton Pearson, played expertly by Chiwetel Ejiofor. A recent change in beliefs causes Pearson to alienate the majority of his massive congregation in one sermon, upending his meteoric rise in the church.
Director Joshua Marston’s Netflix biopic Come Sunday captures Pearson through his time of trial in late 1990s Tulsa, Oklahoma. The bishop’s change of heart comes after news of his Uncle Quincy’s suicide in prison. As an evangelist, he is taught to believe that anyone who has not “been delivered” will go straight to hell. He is conflicted with the thought of not being able to save a loved one. He also watches children in Africa, large groups of impoverished people who will never hear the word of Jesus Christ, and he is not satisfied with their supposed fate.
After a time of mourning and prayer, he comes to the revelation that there must not be a hell, and that everyone will be saved. In reference to Jesus, Pearson tells Roberts, “His blood covered everybody.” To an audience of God-fearing evangelicals, that kind of talk was considered heresy.
Ejiofor is a dynamo as the minister, reminding audiences of an artistic virtuosity that is frequently underused in Marvel blockbusters or Matt Damon space adventures. In several scenes, Marston steps back and lets Ejiofor’s eyes do all the work, capturing the uncertainty and claustrophobia of Pearson’s isolation. When going toe-to-toe with his right-hand man played by Jason Segel, it is clear to see that Ejiofor is working with more tools in his toolkit.
The other standout performance comes from rising star Lakeith Stanfield, playing Pearson’s conflicted gay music director. Stanfield’s character becomes the emotional linchpin of the religious tug of war: a gay man who loves the gospel but fears that his true nature will cause him to descend into hell. He perfectly captures the feeling of dread and panic, desperately looking to Bishop Pearson for answers.
Those two performances are enough to recommend Come Sunday. However, the film does have a pacing problem. While some scenes dive deep into the religious issue, some conversations seem to be only treading water. Pearson’s initial epiphany is handled a little too quickly, and his relationship with Segel is never fully believable. Marston is at his best when the lens is only on Ejiofor and his internal struggle.
Come Sunday tackles the depth and the breadth of God’s benevolence. If Jesus did die for all sin, was he also counting the people who do not make it to church every week? Bishop Pearson believes that God spoke to him, while Oral Roberts thinks that Satan could be putting their terms of salvation at risk. Segel’s character even asks, “What if it turns out that there is a hell and we are responsible?” Marston’s film does not shy away from the natural contradictions that occur in scripture.
Regardless of personal faith, the performances make Come Sunday worth a stream. Netflix is releasing a new original movie practically every week this year. After some light research, it can be argued that all of them have been disappointments or outright dismissals. Come Sunday might be Netflix’s best 2018 delivery (no pun intended) yet.