Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown appear in Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul by Adamma Ebo, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Alan Gwizdowski.
It is no secret organized religion has grown beyond the simple act of a spiritual leader attempting to teach their faith to a small-but-devoted congregation. To keep up with the demands of society, a religious service has become an entertainment event. Mom-and-Pop churches are no match for full-tilt concerts and laser light shows. Yet, it is not just the restless nature of society that is to blame for these bigger-and-better services. There are two partners in this dance, and it is the “star” of the show who should be the responsible party in the dynamic. No matter what denomination being practiced, it is the individual on stage who holds the power, and one truth that has been consistent over the past several decades is that power often corrupts those who are meant to be the most holy.
The clever new satire Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. from writer-director Adamma Ebo finds her expanding on her previous short of the same name for her feature film debut. This is the story of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, the pastor who has fallen from grace, and his wife who exemplifies the “good wife” as she wrestles to get him back to a place of power while slowly questioning her own beliefs. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown, Waves) once held tens of thousands of souls in his hand as the larger-than-life leader of his megachurch. He could whip a crowd into a frenzy and make them not think twice about serving the will of the lord with an open bank account. Yet a recent scandal, the details of which are slowly alluded to as the film unfolds, has caused the temporary closure of his church until the plan to rebuild his reputation can be implemented.
Lee-Curtis believes the path back to salvation, and primarily the lifestyle it affords them, is through harnessing the power of media and bringing someone on board to make a documentary about them. His wife, Trinitie (Regina Hall, Support The Girls), is rightfully skeptical that they will be able to control the image that the world sees. While both delusional at times, Trinitie is shown to be the more clear-headed and self aware of the two. Trinitie has learned how to plaster a smile on her face and say what people want to hear while just barely holding back her true feelings. Lee-Curtis seems so deep in his situation that he seems to be deluding even himself. An early comparison to Rocky humorously hints that their rehabilitation may not be so easy.
The film largely takes on a mockumentary style that could easily be compared to Christopher Guest (Best In Show) films, but the hint of underlying darkness feels spiritually closer to Drop Dead Gorgeous. The early half of the film where the two main subjects feel most assured in their comeback is the most consistently funny. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are used to the spotlight, and you can see them come alive when they think the camera is rolling. Ebo uses this time to brilliantly satirize the pageantry that has become so enmeshed with church culture, Lee-Curtis with his closet full of colorful Prada suits and Trinitie with her structurally brilliant hats. After all, “God don’t like ugly.” To be fair, the costumes in this film are gorgeous, and when coupled with the access to the real-life Cathedral at Chapel Hill as their WTGP stand-in, it is easy to forget that this is an independent affair. The production value lives up to the demands of these characters.
It is during this stretch where we also get a taste of the secondary impediment to the resurrection of Lee-Curtis Childs. The thousands that packed his congregation have dwindled to a “Devout Five” thanks to the allure of the up-and-coming church, Heaven’s House, down the street. This church is led by married-couple pastors, Shakira and Keon Sumpter (Nicole Behari and Conphidance), who previously learned from the Childs family. Is the fact that they are planning on opening their expansion on Easter Sunday, the day that Lee-Curtis has staked for his return, a coincidence or a strategic death blow orchestrated by former friends? Behari (Miss Juneteenth) and Conphidance (Little America) make a big impression during their few key scenes, making you almost want a sequel to delve more into how the presence of a woman leading a congregation changes the dynamics within a church.
Unlike traditional mockumentaries, Honk For Jesus does pivot back and forth between the footage that is being captured by the in-movie crew and that which only the audience at home is witnessing. This does allow for the most joyous and hilarious scene in the film, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie letting their guard down and alleviating a tense car ride by savagely rapping to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck.” Despite being quick and simple, it is not just a throwaway moment. It is one of the few times in the movie where we get a glimpse of these two without a mask on for the outside world.
Ebo pushes beyond the easy jokes for something more thematically weighty as this story unfolds. Yes, these two have exploited their congregation for years to fund their extravagant lifestyle, but anyone who chooses to go to a church of a certain size knows deep down this is part of the game. There are larger issues at play when it comes to the hidden desires of Lee-Curtis and why they manifest the ways that they do. Preaching to a congregation of tens of thousands of people does not jive well with living an open and honest lifestyle, especially in the South. Then there is the place of Trinitie, a woman who has been raised in a community where you stand by your man until maybe you get a respite through their corporeal departure. Trinitie is steadily losing her patience with her irresponsible husband, and the culmination of this brings some level of catharsis on her behalf.
The acting from the entire ensemble is incredible, but Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall are delivering some of the best, most committed work of their career in this film. Having to navigate their personas on-camera and off is a noteworthy feat, but add in the fact that they are grappling with truths about themselves they are not even ready to confront, and you have something special. Not to mention the seamless transition from broad comedy to heart wrenching drama. The perfect reaction shot from Regina Hall upon seeing a stripped-down Lee-Childs in church is destined to be turned into a popular GIF in due time, the highest honor one could desire in today’s time.
Despite everything the film does right, there are elements that keep it from being a perfect satire. Primarily, the film begins to turn a little sluggish in the middle portion as certain points are reiterated without new insights being given. The conclusion likewise feels a bit unrewarding as the credits start rolling, leaving you to wonder if there was an ending that could have cut a bit deeper than what we got. Adamma Ebo appears to be excited to tackle a myriad of different facets of this world, but not all avenues are explored as thoroughly as they could be in order to be effective. The result is a very entertaining movie that does not quite reach its full potential. Religion is an easy topic to skewer, but Ebo goes beyond the surface to level criticism that should make even the most devout believer think twice about the true nature it occupies in their life.
Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. had its World Premiere in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: Adamma Ebo
Writer: Adamma Ebo
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.