Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. (2022) is a biting satire revolving around the culture of southern Baptist mega churches. On a wider scale, it examines the toxicity of power. The characters claim to be messengers of God but are the complete opposite. They are obsessed with power and influence, and once those things are taken from them, will go to any lengths to get it back. Would God really have wanted those speaking for Him seated upon a golden throne, wearing designer outfits, and living in mansions paid by loyal followers? Is it really the Lord’s way to brag over material possessions with no lack of humility? As they say: Pride comes before the fall. In this instance, that happens in an extreme way.
Written and directed by Adamma Ebo (expanding her 2018 short film of the same name), the narrative takes the form of a mockumentary. We meet Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) in the middle of a tumultuous time. Once leading thousands of parishioners, a sexual abuse scandal forced the couple to temporarily close their Wander to Greater Paths Church. In hopes of wiping the slate clean and gaining back their congregation, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie intend to reopen their doors Easter Weekend. However, the scandal has left a stain on their reputation. The rise of competing churches – especially the one led by the Sumpters (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie) – has also made the Childs’ return difficult. The couple hope that hiring a documentary crew will help shed light on their predicament and win back the public’s trust.
Ebo’s writing and direction crafts the story as a Christopher Guest like spoof. Alan Gwizdowski’s cinematography plays with aspect ratio, as we switch from personal testimonies, archival clips of Lee-Curtis delivering his sermons, to private conversations. The approach amplifies how the central characters oscillate between their public personas and who they are behind closed doors. The result is equally funny and insightful. The Childs – especially Lee-Curtis – have become engrained within their personal wealth and social standing. To them, having fancy shoes, hats, jewelry, and a collection of automobiles are just the rewards of doing God’s work. They speak of living under the influence of God’s teachings, but their actions contradict that belief. Behind every smile and “Have a Blessed Day” is an underlying tension. Whether they admit it or not, the scandal has been so damaging that any hopes of surviving it are thin.
While humorous in its absurdity, the Childs’ attempt to rejuvenate their church has a layer of sadness. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are not dumb. They are aware of how the scandal affected their community and those victimized by the abuse. Trying to sweep everything under the rug only makes the situation worse. This is especially true for Trinitie. Regina Hall delivers an incredible performance as the “First Lady” of the church. She believes that she is a faithful servant to God and a devoted wife to her husband, but the stress has caused cracks to emerge. Why continue fighting when your husband treats you as a side kick? How much dignity must she sacrifice to revive her church and save her marriage? Her religion does not believe in divorce, but the heartache is overwhelming. Hall juggles all these conflicting emotions in a role that is utterly captivating. She is the heart of the film, pulling us in with genuine emotion. Trinitie is like a balloon slowing being filled to the point of exploding – it’s just a matter of “when.” This is standout, stellar work from Hall.
In contrast, Sterling K. Brown’s performance as the disgraced pastor is effective in an entirely different way. Where Trinitie is driven by sincerity, Lee-Curtis is driven by ego. As the character, Brown struts and strides with an over-the-top confidence, like that of a car salesman. There is no denying that he is charismatic – we see how his speeches can move large crowds in any direction. He is used to talking his way in and out of anything, but he’s not slick enough to escape the scandal. In one of the highlight scenes, Lee-Curtis practices the sermon he will deliver on Easter Sunday, and Brown fills him with abundant energy and stage presence. He makes us hang onto every sentence, even if they are built with false words. Brown is very good at giving Lee-Curtis different shades to his personality. The charm exists on the surface, masking the troubled darkness underneath. Lee-Curtis lacks the self-awareness to see how much of a spectacle he is making of himself – or maybe he does but pretends not to notice. He will put himself and his wife in demeaning positions not to spread God’s love but for his own greed. Brown gives a sneakily complex work that is fascinating to watch unfold.
This isn’t to say that Honk for Jesus is dreary. Much of the narrative is upbeat, with tons of enthusiasm and a lot of laughs. Surrounding Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are a host of colorful characters. Nicole Beharie and Conphidance steal their scenes as the competing Sumpters. In a way, the two play as a younger version of the Childs. They are ambitious and have the benefit of youth and inexperience on their side. They see themselves as the heirs to the kingdom and have not (yet) been tainted by the self-absorption that has plagued the Childs. When the four meet, it’s as though they are seeing one another from opposite ends of the spectrum. The Childs see who they once were, while Sumpters see who they could become if they make the wrong decisions.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. has a lot of things to say and does so in an entertaining and smart way. It invites us to see this world in both positive and negative perspectives – embracing what makes a mega church unique while pointing out the flaws within its contained system. Ebo and the rest of the production show us how a person, no matter how devoted to the Almighty, are just as susceptible to temptation as anyone else. As soon as we can admit to these problems, the sooner we can get to fixing them.