‘God’s Not Dead (but there is room for doubt)’
There is a key distinction between films where faith is the message and films that deal with issues of faith. Come Sunday is very much the latter.
Premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and released by Netflix for streaming online, the latest from Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) is a contemplative look at a real life figure whose struggle with his own faith impacts upon the relationships he has with those closest to him personally and professionally.
Adapted from a This American Life feature from 2005, Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) stars as Carlton Pearson, an African American evangelical preacher with a well-known following at his Tulsa megachurch in 1998.
Adored by his congregation and in regular contact with mentor Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen, The West Wing), Pearson’s existential crisis occurs upon viewing footage of the Rwandan genocide, leaving the committed family man to question the morality of a deity who would allow innocents to suffer in hell having not received the word of god.
In reconciling his internal struggle through a staunch belief god has spoken to him personally, Pearson takes an iconoclastic stance in front of his integrated believers, resulting in those around him being alienated and ultimately rejecting the preacher’s newfound interpretation of the Christian sacred text.
With the subject of religion and spirituality serving as a well-worn source of interest for artists historically, Come Sunday bares resemblance in part to Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground, along with Robert Duvall’s The Apostle in presenting a character deeply compelled by their religious convictions, but affected by a personal struggle stemming from that same faith.
In contrast to films concerned with faith as an aspect of character, recent independent productions made by and for Christian audiences, such as God’s Not Dead, War Room and Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas have proven to be largely profitable in taking an absolute stance on religious belief, wherein non-believers are active transgressors who can only be redeemed through accepting god.
In taking such a nuanced turn in dealing with an issue as personally intimate and equally widespread as faith, Come Sunday is a triumph in making a character with the potential of being a one-dimensional caricature into a fully-fledged figure who despite holding the conviction of his beliefs, remains susceptible to doubt and willing to move away from dogmatic interpretation towards a view of Christian teachings focussing on compassion applicable to the contemporary world.
Despite a mostly innocuous approach towards visual style, the strength of the story and a brilliant leading performance from Ejiofor makes Come Sunday one of the best films of 2018 so far.
Gaining considerable acclaim for his portrayal of Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen 2013 Best Picture winner, Ejiofor is aided greatly by recognised stars Sheen and Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), while Jason Segel (I Love You, Man) and Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) deliver some of the best work of their careers in supporting roles.
Having made his name as part of the Judd Apatow clique, Segel appears to have well and truly moved on from his time on How I Met Your Mother with a conflicted portrayal as Ejiofor’s right hand man, who struggles to come to terms with his friend’s change in ideology, while Stanfield is given a greater share of screen time to leave an impact reminiscent of his chilling breakout performance in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12. Transcending a seemingly thankless role as the beleaguered wife of a man married to his faith, Condola Rashād (Billions) additionally makes the most of her few scenes, with an unexpected turn midway through the 106-minute run time.
Given the real world changes that have occurred over the past two decades from the film’s late 90’s setting, contemporary audiences may find issue with the manner in which characters relate to the subject of homosexuality. With a subplot involving Stanfield as a HIV-affected member of the congregation, it is important to comprehend that while Come Sunday exists in a 2018 context, the prevailing attitudes of the film’s time period have been retained. By current standards the depiction of a religious figure citing the incongruence of ‘loving the person, but hating the sin’ is largely an untenable position, however in keeping with the compassionate worldview espoused through Marston’s direction and the screenplay from Marcus Hinchey (All Good Things), the final scenes are both an acknowledgement of religious alienation towards LGBT communities and an embracement of societal outsiders finding acceptance among each other.
Garnering a reputation as the destination for emerging television and acclaimed documentaries, Netflix has yet to solidify a foothold in the narrative feature film market. Preferencing their advertising energies towards the likes of Bright and Adam Sandler’s extended multi-picture deal, contemplative films such as Come Sunday have been largely ignored in an ever-expanding sea of titles.
With an April release that often sees similar intimate dramas dismissed in favour of prestige pictures in the run up to awards season, Marston’s feature will more than likely fall under the radar for casual moviegoers. But with the film available online at the convenience of viewers, there may be hope that much like the struggle faced by the real life Carlton Pearson in getting his message out, Come Sunday will find an audience appreciative of a great thoughtful film.