Best friends and partners in petty crime, Durell Washington and LeeJohn Jackson have jointly compiled quite the laundry list of misdemeanors. The judge in their borough of Baltimore is so sick of seeing the two of them that he sentences them to 5,000 hours of community service in lieu of jail time, to see if that will shape them up.
In the middle of their community service stint, they get caught up in a stolen wheelchair operation, which lands them in trouble again. This time, it's not just with the law. They're also in trouble with the guys who stole the wheelchairs—to the tune of $12,000. On top of that, Durell's ex-wife (or maybe ex-girlfriend), Omunique, informs him that if he can't pay her business lease of $17,000, she'll take Durell Jr. and move to Atlanta.
In pursuit of quick cash, Durell and LeeJohn decide to rob their neighborhood church. The idea is to get hold of the weekend offering before it makes its way to the bank. They break into the building on a Sunday evening and make hostages of the tiny gospel choir and a handful of church leaders who are holding a meeting.
These parishioners aren't characters so much as they're caricatures. Pitted against the kindhearted pastor, his feisty daughter, the sweet-talking single mom, the oily deacon, the effeminate choir director and the obese alto, the two would-be felons are in over their heads. What should have been a quick nab-and-dash turns into an hours-long holdup. And instead of escaping with lots of change, Durell and LeeJohn end up being changed.
Though Durell seems at first to have a stereotypical broken family, audiences soon see that his relationship with his son is not typical. Far from being a deadbeat dad, he shows intense commitment to Durell Jr. He hugs the boy tightly, tells him that he loves him and encourages his son to become a better person than he himself is. The boy, in return, openly admires his dad. When he calls for advice, Dad always takes time to talk—even in the middle of the attempted robbery. Junior trusts his father to thwart the impending move to Atlanta. And it's clear that both Dad and Son would be crushed by being separated. It's Durell's sense of responsibility to his son that motivates him to make a good choice at a pivotal moment.
The film explores the idea of criminals being victims—specifically the idea that Durell and LeeJohn turned out bad because they had no fathers, were raised in foster care, etc. Ultimately, this idea is rejected in favor of everyone—even those from disadvantaged backgrounds—taking responsibility for their own actions.
The people of First Hope Community Church, where the bumbling robbers stage their holdup, have a genuine desire to make a difference in their urban community. They're making decisions about where to spend a large sum of money they have sacrificially raised, and the majority of the congregation wants to pour it back into the downtown area where the church is currently housed. There's talk of funding a day care center, a foster care support center or a convalescent home. Tianna, the pastor's adult daughter, asserts that "the church should inspire the community." An embezzling deacon's selfish plans to forsake their urban home for the safety of the suburbs are ultimately rejected.
[Spoiler Warning] As unlikely as this comparison will sound, the pivotal moments of First Sunday look a lot like a scene from Les Misérables, in which the bishop allows Jean Valjean to go free rather than turning him in for stealing. Instead of reacting with condemnation and hatred toward their captors, the hostages at First Hope shower Durell and LeeJohn with love. Forgiveness is not only talked about, but lived. An older saint named Momma T. takes a particular interest in the two young men. She wonders aloud, "If God can give these two boys a second chance, why can't we?"
The love they receive at First Hope is so strong that LeeJohn and Durell decide to abandon the robbery attempt. What's more, their attitudes are permanently changed, and they start attending the church. Durell even makes promises to provide for his son's mother, and it's implied that reconciliation between them is a possibility.
Durell and LeeJohn initially enter First Hope during a lively Sunday communion service. Not being accustomed to the sacrament, LeeJohn exclaims, "They've got an open bar!" and both men proceed to down several tiny cups of communion wine as if they were shots. LeeJohn also asks for Cheez Whiz to go with his communion crackers, and hopes aloud that attending church will allow him to "meet a Mary Magdelene."
Though these unlikely visitors are irreverent, the church itself is not, at least for the most part. (Exceptions include an elderly lady's prayer that is supposed to be comical, but takes a mocking tone, and a too-casual comment about Jesus on the cross.) Pastor Mitchell is kind and encouraging, and earnestly prays for God's will to be done above his own. He also tells the two thieves, "You're only out of options if you stop looking for them." The primary message being preached at First Hope is that God has a blessing for those who will reach out and accept it in faith. Some viewers will hear a prosperity gospel in the songs sung and words spoken, but that's inferred, not overtly preached.
The Sunday of the robbers' visit is called First Sunday, when a special offering is taken. The collection is an unbearable temptation to Durell and LeeJohn, so they return to the church that evening to steal it. While they're creeping around, LeeJohn is freaked out by a picture of "white Jesus," whose eyes seem to be following him. It turns out that he's having an attack of conscience for attempting to rob a church. And he asks Durell if he thinks hell is real.
Durell and LeeJohn visit a shady massage parlor, where we can hear sexual sounds as well as animal sounds. The implication is that many perversions are taking place there. The woman who greets them at the door is scantily clad. Once they're inside, LeeJohn receives (and clearly enjoys) the royal treatment from a masseuse who turns out to be a cross-dresser. When he discovers the "girl's" true gender he bolts from the building, clad only in cartoon-character underpants. In another scene, LeeJohn complains that if he goes to jail, "they'll turn me into a woman!" He also says that he got his unique name from his mother, who had two boyfriends at the time of his birth and didn't know which one was his father.
For a pastor's daughter, Tianna wears disappointingly tight and low-cut clothes. Durell and LeeJohn, of course, are not disappointed by this and continually ogle her chest and backside.
Rickey the choir director is both effeminate and eccentric, and therefore is the punch line of a running joke that spans the story. His womanish antics are sometimes truly comical, but at other times, they're disturbing. For instance, a joke is made about Rickey holding a small boy on his lap. Rickey himself makes a joke about sexually transmitted infections. A few other sexual jokes are cracked by various characters.
During a disagreement, Durell threatens to "come across the table" at LeeJohn. In a car-chase scene, a red light is run to evade the police. And a food cart being pushed by a vendor is hit. In a similar attempt to escape what's coming to them, the two start a scuffle in a courtroom to avoid being handcuffed.
The wheelchair-stealing thugs threaten multiple times to shoot Durell and LeeJohn if they don't produce the money they owe. They brandish their pistols to make the point, and they start a fistfight with LeeJohn.
There's a lot of gun waving during the church holdup, but only the ceiling actually gets shot.
Crude or Profane Language
Durell and LeeJohn do a good deal of frivolous swearing. We're subjected to two s-words, a handful of uses of "d--n," about a dozen milder profanities and an obscene gesture. Their favorite dirty word is "a--," which gets hauled out almost two-dozen times. Jesus' name is abused once, and God's name is combined with "d--n" once. We hear what might be the f-word, but if it is that word, it's deliberately obscured to the point where it's almost unrecognizable. Pastor Mitchell specifically challenges the young men about their "foul language," and there's a noticeable reduction in swearing toward the end of the film.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A bumper sticker says, "Honk if you like weed." Lots of people honk. Police officers are shown exiting a liquor store, and it's not clear if they've been patrolling or purchasing. Homeless people drink wine from a paper bag. There's also the aforementioned confusion about a communion service being an open bar.
Other Negative Elements
Several times, a woman is made fun of for her weight.
Given the tone of the trailers for First Sunday, I didn't expect to see much that was redemptive. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that redemption is the theme. Looking back over the text of this review, I'm amazed at the length of the "Positive Elements" section. I'm thinking to myself, All that stuff is really in this movie? Weird.
My cognitive dissonance is probably a result of a meaty and uplifting theme being wrapped up in slapstick comedy, complete with crude jokes, cardboard cutout characters and a cartoonish plot. (Are you feeling my video vertigo here?) Moviegoers with an appetite for coarse capers will get an unexpected message about forgiveness and grace, but they—and everyone else who visits this cinematic church on First Sunday—will also sit through irreverent joking, sexual shenanigans and bad language.