It’s fitting that Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul opens with Black Jesus. Christianity stands at the foundation of the lives of many Black people across the globe. The Black American church, in particular, has origins that begin amid the transatlantic slave trade. It is a pillar in the Black community that has remained prominent as a place of worship, service, fellowship, and so much more from the Reconstruction Era into the present.
Writer/director Adamma Ebo’s dark comedy is a striking commentary on what Black church culture has become. Instead of places of refuge for Black people from all walks of life, many congregations now center on showmanship, greed, deep-seated misogynoir, hypocrisy, and bigotry.
Honk For Jesus follows Trinitie Childs (an outstanding Regina Hall), the first lady of the once illustrious mega-baptist church Wander To Greater Paths. Ebo uses faux news castings and TV footage to paint a portrait of the once glorious congregation. Following a major scandal involving Trinitie’s entertainer-like husband, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), the church’s massive 25,000 perishers have dwindled to a mere handful. The details of the scandal are slowly revealed throughout the film, but the Childs aren’t exactly forthright with them. Determined to put the “unpleasantness” behind them, the Childs’ have whipped up several initiatives with the hopes of reopening their doors to the public in time for Easter Sunday.
The brainchild of Lee-Curtis, the pastor and first lady’s first step in their rebranding is hiring a director named Anita (Andrea Laing) and her crew to film the couple in the four weeks leading up to their big comeback. However, with their narrative in someone else hands, the Childs learn that documentary filmmakers and publicists are two separate entities. As the cameras follow the Childs — Trinitie— in particular, their secrets and true selves slowly come bubbling to the surface. The Childs’ obsession with appearance is clear from the jump, especially when Lee Curtis’ boasts about his varied Prada suits. However, their most authentic moments, including a rap session to Crime Mob’s “Knuck if You Buck” are never supposed to be seen on camera.
It doesn’t help that the Childs’ have some new competition in husband/wife co-pastors, Shakura and Keon Sumpter (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance) who run Heaven’s House. The once unassuming congregation has expanded trifold in the wake of Wander To Greater Paths’ demise. When the Childs learn of a second Heaven’s House location opening on Easter Sunday, they become increasingly desperate to reclaim their former glory.
Typically, it feels unwieldy when a film twists and turns in tone from satirical and comedic into flat-out dramatic. Honk For Jesus is different. Ebo has a deep understanding of the interworkings of the Black megachurch and the particular role of the church’s first lady. While Brown is fantastic here as a man-child leader, who is obsessed with spectacle and lacks any accountability, Hall is masterful.
Trinitie is both sympathetic and enraging. Though she is certainly not complicit in her disgraced husband’s actions, she is too indoctrinated in the church’s sexism and in her own status to let Lee-Curtis’ plight be his to bear alone. Far more cerebral than her husband, she has perfected a nice nasty, passive-aggressive display for former congregants. Also, the war that she’s having with herself about the life that she’s chosen and what she’s willing to do to get it back is ever apparent.
Ebo offers no solutions with her film, but she grapples with very real cynicism from her upbringing in Atlanta megachurches, the ones that sometimes asked their congregants to put up blinders to reality or the true teachings of Christianity. Moreover, she shines a spotlight on women like Trinitie. These are women who have been both emboldened and damaged by the patriarchal structure of the Black church. Still, since they are privy to every aspect of these structures, if they might refrain from standing by their men, they may have the power to change everything for the future.
Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul premiered at Sundance Festival Jan. 23, 2022.