It's 1998, and Carlton Pearson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is leading a fulfilling, if hectic, life running a multiracial Tulsa megachurch while jetting around the country to save souls. However, he's starting to feel overwhelmed by the project: his imprisoned uncle Quincy (Danny Glover) commits suicide, his organist Reggie (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling with his homosexuality, and finally he sees a TV report on the genocide in Rwanda, leading him to wonder if all those non-Christian children are really going straight to hell after being brutally murdered. He prays and hears the voice of God telling him that no, those people aren't going to hell because Jesus' sacrifice saved everyone already. When he shares this at church, however, this leads to a split in the congregation as well as a breach in Pearson's relationships, including with his mentor Oral Roberts (Martin Sheen), who believes that Pearson actually heard the voice of the other guy.
First seen at Sundance, the film was released on Netflix in 2018.
This film includes examples of:
- As the Good Book Says...: Not surprisingly, there's a lot of Scripture-quoting going on in the film, most dramatically when Carlton has his right-hand man Henry (Jason Segel) read aloud from 1 John 2 ("He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.").
- Beard of Sorrow: Carlton sports a finely groomed pencil-mustache for most of the film, but as his Crisis of Faith starts seriously taking its toll on him as he loses his job, he grows a full beard.
- Both Sides Have a Point: While the film tells the story from Carlton's viewpoint, his opponents are portrayed sympathetically, and reasonably question Carlton's undoing so much of the work that he did and the relationships he built on account of Hearing Voices.
- Cain and Abel: It's hinted that this is going on between Carlton, whom Oral Roberts regards as "my black son," and Oral's biological son Richard. When Richard denounces Carlton on TV, Carlton says he'd been wanting to do that for 25 years.
- Crisis of Faith: Somewhat. While Carlton never seems to lose faith in the basics — God, Jesus, the Bible — he does have a painful reckoning with some of the traditional doctrines, and later admits to Oral Roberts that he feels "lost."
- Driven to Suicide:
- Uncle Quincy hangs himself after he's sentenced to six more years in jail after drugs were found in his cell.
- The suicide of Oral Roberts' gay son Ronnie is also mentioned, though not seen.
- Freeze-Frame Ending: The film closes by freezing on Carlton in mid-sermon at a progressive church.
- Gayngst: Very much a Justified Trope given the circumstances. Reggie is devoted to the church and to Carlton, but even after Carlton comes to believe in universal salvation, he takes longer to shake the idea that homosexuality is sinful. This also clearly happened to Oral Roberts' son Ronnie, who was Driven to Suicide.
- God Before Dogma: The film makes clear that hearing the voice of God was the decisive moment for Carlton that induced him to question church doctrine. He only later finds Scriptures to back it up.
- God Is Good: Carlton firmly believes it, and for him this overrules the tradition about eternal torment. During one sermon he even tells the flock that in some ways the God they've been worshipping is "a monster," which doesn't exactly go over well.
- Good Shepherd: Carlton is portrayed as sincerely wanting to do good for his flock and humanity in general.
- It's All About Me: Some of Carlton's friends and relatives call him out on his ego, and the fact that he expects everyone to just go along with whatever his agenda is. At one point they discuss a poster for the church's Easter service, of which Carlton's wife says that Carlton's head is too big for the font. Reggie remarks dryly that "we can't make Carlton's head smaller."
- Karma Houdini: The fear of this is a driving force for Carlton's critics. When the College of African-American Bishops calls Carlton to account, one bishop says that while he loved his abusive father, "hell is where he belongs."
- Leaving Audience: While Carlton is preaching his newfound belief in universal salvation, a number of his congregants walk out of the church.
- Marriage Before Romance: Carlton's wife, Gina, says that their union was almost an Arranged Marriage, because it wouldn't do to have a 40-year-old single Sexy Priest leading a family church. But they did come to love each other, and going through Carlton's crisis eventually brings them closer together.
- Married to the Job: In the first scene, Carlton tells another character that he was brought up to believe that marriage and children would be a distraction for a pastor, so he got married with mixed feelings. Gina accepts that his vocation comes first, but does feel frustratingly invisible sometimes.
- Mr. Exposition: During the opening credits, a man introducing Carlton at one of his speaking gigs helpfully explains the bishop's background and current success for the audience.
- My Greatest Failure: Oral Roberts says that his is that he couldn't save his son Ronnie.
- Sexy Priest: Gina says that women were throwing themselves at Carlton while he was still single, and that after they married "the balcony emptied out."
- Title Drop: A few days after Carlton's first universalist sermon, Oral Roberts meets with him and says that "come Sunday" this will all be worked out and things can go back to normal.