Jazmine Joyner raced through traffic to get to Netflix HQ to interview Come Sunday director Joshua Marston, and the film’s subject Bishop Carlton Pearson.
“Why is everyone so scared to love each other unconditionally? To believe in unconditional love?”- Joshua Marston
It’s Tuesday morning. I am racing through traffic to get to Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles to interview the director of the new film Come Sunday, Joshua Marston, and the movie’s subject Bishop Carlton Pearson. I make it just in time, and I’m whisked up into the fortress-like building, to a swanky modern hipster office space. With a fantastic communal kitchen and a lovely, smiling staff. I am immediately placed in a room with the Bishop.
He is a man that looks young for his age, curly cropped hair, with an immediate magnetic gaze, a firm handshake, and a friendly demeanor all wrapped up in red cowboy boots. He wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Being that he is a modern-day heretic, I thought of the medieval heretics portrayed as tragic figures, broken men and women who have seemed to have had everything stripped away from them until they were nothing. But not Bishop Carlton. He immediately began to interview me. Asking about my writing, my siblings, and my parents, and he seemed genuinely interested in my answers and continued to try to learn more. I reminded him this interview was about him and Come Sunday, a film about his life and he responded, “Oh! You have to stop me. Because I’ll find out where your great grandpa was from!” This jovial beginning of our interview was a sign of Bishop Pearson’s constant positivity, which fuels not only his personality but his story.
The message at the heart of Netflix’s new film Come Sunday is something we all need in our lives right now. The story focuses on Bishop Carlton Pearson, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. At the top of his game in the 1990s, he was the charismatic face of Pentecostalism in the U.S. The founder of Higher Dimensions Family Church, a massive megachurch in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with 5,000 members. He was one of the first black ministers to appear on national television. All was well until Bishop Pearson started to wrestle with his faith, saying, “My shift in consciousness began ten years before I spoke it out. I wrestled with heaven and hell, not so much heaven as much as hell.”
Pearson began to realize the God he believed in was a cruel and vengeful God and not the loving one he knew in his heart. He said, “There is a difference between what you believe and what you know. I know that wasn’t true but I believed it was.” See the Bishop’s struggle was with the idea that only the good, saved Pentecostal members got to go to heaven. Everyone else would be sent down to hell. “Hell hath no redemptive virtue or value. And I had too many friends in it and relatives […] I just couldn’t reconcile a loving God, I could understand if it was purgative or punitive, but this eon of infinite punishment, that’s hatred. It’s obscenity [and] it doesn’t make sense.”
It was this feeling that leads to Bishop Pearson preaching the Gospel of Inclusion. His belief that God’s love is for everyone and the blood of Jesus covers all, not just the saved. As you can imagine this caused a significant uproar in his community, ministering that there was no hell and in fact, everyone gets heaven after they died, ruffled a lot of feathers. Pearson lost everything. His church, his community, his livelihood. You can see why this would be a compelling story Netflix wanted to tell.
Director Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace, Complete Unknown) spent a lot of time with the Bishop trying to get a grasp of the Pentecostal world. Being a white Jewish man, Marston worked hard to bring the realism and authenticity needed to Pearson’s story. “Wherever I was shooting I would text Carlton, [and] I’d say ‘I’m in D.C. What’s a good Pentecostal church to go to?’ I had no experience in a Pentecostal service, and I’ve now been to many Pentecostal services. It was important for me to experience it to get it right on the screen, and it was important for me to experience to understand at some level the story I was telling.” To both Marston and Bishop Pearson the theme of inclusion and love was very important in the telling of this story.
The church can often be a place where people are often judged for their lifestyle, how they look, what they believe and how they lead their lives. But it’s clear that Come Sunday wants to impart the lesson of inclusion. Bishop Pearson explains, “The word ‘inclusion’ actually comes from the word ‘enclosure.’ It means to make everybody be safe. Everybody’s protected [and] nobody is left out. Nobody is vulnerable, nobody is marginalized or kicked to the curb. Everybody is in. That’s my experience with God, not religion, but of God.”
In a country so divided, Bishop Pearson’s message of inclusion through the idea of a loving God is a welcomed opportunity to reflect on the ways what we exclude those around us. I am not particularly religious, so I am the last person to tell you what Pearson is preaching is theologically right or wrong. But I do believe in the message of inclusion. Marston talked to me at length about how he wanted to first and foremost create a thought-provoking film. Something that people will be inspired to start a conversation and talk about how the film made them feel. But what he brought up during our interview that I had never quite considered was how a movie like Come Sunday benefits significantly from a direct-to-Netflix release. “It’s beamed straight into the homes of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to their movie theater in their small town and be seen by fellow congregants walking into a movie about a heretic.”
As wild as that sounds, Marston faced a lot of hurdles when trying to get this film made. Not only from the people from Pearson’s Pentecostal preaching past but even more recently at the Los Angeles premiere, a woman confronted Bishop Pearson during his Q&A trying to get him to in a “gotcha moment” and quoted chapter-and-verse and then invited everyone to read the bible and find the truth within. It’s in those moments right there that you realize how even 15 years after the fact Pearson’s beliefs and gospel are still fresh wounds heavily debated within the community.
Something that stuck with me hours after my interviews with both these men was something Joshua Marston said, “What would it mean to live in a world where God is not judgemental, and thus we should not be so judgemental? […] Why are we so afraid of loving people unconditionally? What is it about the idea of loving people unconditionally that scares us so much?” I feel like those are the questions that Bishop Pearson and director Joshua Marston want us to take away from the film Come Sunday.
Come Sunday makes its Netflix debut on the streaming service this week Friday, April 13. Be sure to watch this exclusive clip from Bishop Carlton Pearson above.
Jazmine Joyner is a Southern California based writer, whose work has appeared in /Film, Women Write About Comics, Wear Your Voice Magazine, and Ms En Scene. You can follow her great cinematic adventure on Twitter @Jazmine_Joyner.