If its title didn’t grab your attention the film’s two co-stars should. The always great (and in this case perfectly cast) Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown play a megachurch power couple in the upcoming “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul”. It marks the directorial debut for Adamma Ebo who gives us a biting and often hilarious critique of pseudo-Christianity and megachurch corruption. It’s a snarky satire that uses a mockumentary style to lambaste the lavish self-serving absurdity at the heart of these rackets.
From its opening moments, those familiar with the megachurch phenomenon will immediately notice the spot-on detail. Ebo has clearly done her research and she uses it to expose these wealthy scam-artists who put price tags on righteousness and sell their version of salvation for profit. And of course she delivers plenty of laughs, always at the hucksters’ expense. But Ebo’s craftiness shows in the glimmers of humanity she brings out of her characters, even amid their glaring over-the-top chicanery.
Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) is the pastor of Wander to Greatest Paths Baptist Church in Atlanta (how’s that for a name?). It was once a prominent megachurch with an estimated 25,000 congregants. He and his wife Trinitie (Hall), who’s proudly flaunts the haughty, self-aggrandizing title “First Lady” (not uncommon in these circles), live a opulent lifestyle complete with matching Ferraris, a helicopter, a palatial mansion, closets full of expensive dresses and designer suits, all in the name of the Lord’s service of course.
You won’t find words like “humility” “moderation” or “contentment” in this couple’s vocabulary, with Lee-Curtis excusing his high-priced indulgences as “divine additions” while Trinitie buys $2000.00 hats at a boutique called Bathsheba’s Bonnets (the irony is both obvious and hilarious).
And then came the fall. Lee-Curtis found himself embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal which rocked his cash-cow empire, resulting in a mass exodus of church members and the eventual closing of the church. But rather than bowing out and slithering away in shame, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are prepping for their big comeback, marking down Easter Sunday for their church’s grand re-opening. And to help capture the occasion (and to shamelessly get as much publicity as possible), they’ve brought in a film crew to shoot a documentary.
And so we get the movie’s come-and-go mockumentary style which begins one month before their big Easter event. Ebo has her faux filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie over the next several weeks as they share their “vision” for the future of WGPBP. But instead of demonstrating remorse and repentance, we get the same two charlatans, still decked in Prada and still finding ways to rationalize their sin.
Though a bit uneven, the mockumentary conceit allows for many of the film’s funniest moments. Such as the various times the couple inadvertently expose their true selves in front of the camera. Or in the rivalry we see between the Childses and Keon and Shakira Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance), the husband and wife co-pastors of the bustling Heaven’s House Baptist Church. There are some shakier scenes where the movie drifts away from its whole mockumentary framing (one particularly cringy rap-song sing-a-long being a prime example). But it never takes it long to get back on track.
While the humor is a real strength, the movie often feels at odds with itself when it steers away from straight satire and ventures into more serious drama. That’s when its intentions get a little muddied, especially in its portrayal of Trinitie. At times it seems to paint her as both a hero and a victim. Not totally unlike last year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, another film examining a corrupt couple living large in the name of ministry. In that film, most of Tammy Faye Bakker’s wrongdoings were scrubbed clean in an effort to make her more saintly. Here we actually see many of Trinitie’s sins firsthand which makes embracing her as a victim lot harder.
While she is clearly a victim of Lee-Curtis’ insatiable self-centeredness, Trinitie is no weak powerless damsel nor is she witless or gullible. In fact, you could say she’s the brains and the backbone of the outfit. So rather than a victim, this plays better as a redemption story of a woman who stood by her disgraced husband in order to protect her life of luxury. But as the only Childs with a sliver of conscience, she’s had enough and is ready to finally own up to her part in the hustle. I think that reading gives a more honest and cohesive image of Trinitie. I’m just not sure the movie itself agrees.
Of course the real victims are those who are swindled by these prosperity gospel peddlers who turn shepherding into a performance art and rake in the cash while doing so. Ebo uses some hilariously outrageous antics (which aren’t that far removed from reality) to pose the question, “Who would ever buy what these people are selling?”
Though a little messy, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” holds together thanks to a filmmaker’s keen understanding of her subject and two pitch-perfect leads. Hall especially shines, shrewdly navigating some sketchy character work to give us some semblance of a rooting interest. And while the film asks us to overlook much of what we’ve seen in order to feel a certain way about her character, Hall (miraculously) finds a way to not only earn our respect for Trinitie but also our sympathy.