Growing up in the South in the ’70s, our Saturday morning cartoons were “Bugs Bunny” and “Super Friends,” which had no agenda except to be funny and exciting. Sunday mornings were for “Davey and Goliath” and “Jot,” which kept drumming home messages about being well-behaved, going to church, and treating your parents with respect. Those Sunday cartoons were well done, but the air of preachiness and moralizing kept them from being much fun.
“First Sunday” is a Sunday cartoon.
Starring Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan, the film starts out as a wacky heist comedy about two ne’er-do-wells who decide to rob a church as a way to relieve their financial problems; Durell (Cube) has to raise $17,000 to save his ex-wife’s beauty salon and keep her from taking their son to another city, while LeeJohn (Morgan) owes some scary Rastafarian gangsters $12,000 from a wheelchairs-with-spinning-rims scheme gone wrong. While LeeJohn’s bumbling would make the job difficult enough, the two aren’t remotely prepared for what they find at the church.
Finding the safe to be empty of the day’s donations, Durell and LeeJohn are forced to take the church council hostage, which makes them witness to an internal struggle between the villainous deacon (Michael Beach), who wants to ditch the church’s inner-city location and move out to the safety of the suburbs, and preacher’s daughter Tianna (Malinda Williams), who wants to invest in the neighborhood and provide social services for the poor. Tianna also provides a tangible example of the film’s wanting to have its cake and eat it too — she’s an intelligent, no-nonsense, church-going young lady who also wears an insanely tight skirt so that the camera can ogle her junk in the trunk over and over again.
The missing-church-funds subplot will be easily figured out by any four year old, but it winds up being a McGuffin anyway. The real agenda of “First Sunday” is for Pastor Arthur (Chi McBride) and church ladies Sister Doris (Loretta Devine) and Momma T (Olivia Cole) to reach out to Durell and Leejohn and turn these deadbeats into Jesus-loving, church-attending paragons of the community.
In a way, “First Sunday” is part of a tradition of African-American cinema that goes back to Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams in the 1930s and ’40s; the new film’s ambivalent heroes who see the light, obvious villain and bawdy humor were very much part of the playbook for those cinema pioneers. Unfortunately, the two-dimensional melodrama and hit-you-over-the-head messaging from those old movies (as well as from early talkies by low-budget filmmakers of all races) remains very much in evidence as well. And what played well in 1935 can be wince-worthy in 2008.
Putting aside the film’s misogyny and homophobia (Katt Williams’ choir director character is an embarrassing caricature), “First Sunday” at least provides a gig for the great Olivia Cole, unseen on the screen for more than a decade. But when the WGA strike ends, someone has to promise to write a good role for Loretta Devine, now in her third movie in the last two months (after “This Christmas” and “Dirty Laundry”) where she gets little to do but holler “Thank you, Jesus.”