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Questions of God Challenge a Pentecostal Preacher to Change in ‘Come Sunday’

Sundance 2018: The story of Bishop Carlton Pearson is surprising and nuanced, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor

Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a deeply moving portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher in the throes of a religious crisis in “Come Sunday,” a glimpse into the soul of a real-life man challenged to change his beliefs.

Based on a reported segment on “This American Life,” “Come Sunday” tells the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson, who for many years led a million-strong Pentecostal ministry based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, until 1998, when he found his faith challenged.

Pearson decided that he no longer believed in hell, no longer believed that only saved Christians would go to heaven and no longer believed that his form of faith was the only one that God could accept. In so doing, he broke with the orthodoxy of his mentor Oral Roberts and threw his ministry into confusion.

Most of his followers left. Pearson stuck to his newfound beliefs, and paid a dear price.

There are many unusual aspects to this story, not least of which is a reminder that a lot of religious people still believe in an actual hell. The other is the reminder of how rarely Hollywood movies explore faith, and how important a part of the human experience are the deeply held beliefs of the faithful.

Ejiofor fully inhabits the charismatic Pearson and his crisis of conscience, when late in his career he is suddenly unable to believe that the Creator would reject so many of His creations simply because they did not accept Jesus Christ.

Pearson was at the screening and pulled the audience at the Eccles Theater to their feet. He explained that he spent endless hours talking to the screenwriter Marcus Hinchey and director Joshua Marston, laying himself bare.

“Adam and Eve were naked and felt no shame,” he told the crowd. “I undressed in front of this man [Hinchey], just by talking.” And of seeing his own story up on screen he said, “Our heads are spinning, it makes more sense to me, to Gina, to my children, than when we lived it.”

Ejiofor is supported by a strong cast including Martin Sheen as Oral Roberts, Jason Segel as Pearson’s business collaborator Henry, Condola Rashad as his wife Gina and Danny Glover as his uncle Quincy. Lakeith Stanfield (“Get Out”) gives a touching performance as a gay parishioner torn between his devotion to Pearson and his sexual preference.

The movie, which will debut on Netflix, played in the Premieres section of the Sundance Film Festival.