Services at Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church — a Black megachurch in Atlanta — are blockbuster performances, but the seams have started to show. Writer and director Adamma Ebo’s bleak, biting satire “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” follows Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) and her husband Lee-Curtis (Sterling K. Brown), the formerly baronial first lady and pastor of the church, as they attempt to reopen their doors for Easter Sunday and restore their status in the community after closing down amidst sexual misconduct allegations against Lee-Curtis. Shot partially in a faux-documentary style, “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” is a kinetic and often riotous critique of the socioeconomic rituals and artifices surrounding organized religion, gaining traction as it hardens into an incisive, if unsurprising, portrait of the decaying marriage at the film’s — and the church’s — center.
The movie picks up “One month until First Sunday Back,” according to a banner floating over aerial B-roll footage of the church towering on the horizon. A documentary crew, helmed by an unseen director named Anita, has descended on the Childs’ to capture their triumphant return, or maybe to record their crash-and-burn — Anita’s motives are not immediately clear. Lee-Curtis believes it’s the former, telling his wife that the documentary is going to “chronicle the ultimate comeback”; Trinitie and the audience are more skeptical. The moc-doc is a nifty device that layers in the additional stakes of literally intimate scrutiny. If anything, the film resorts too often to the Childs’ demanding “cut” on the meta-footage as a means of illustrating their loosened grasp on public perception.
The tensions between Trinitie and Lee-Curtis continue to mount, and Hall and Brown are immeasurably fun to watch as cracks widen in their united front. Though the camera stays closer to Hall — who delivers a master class in visceral anxiety masked by performative graciousness as she sizes up possible foes at every turn, from disgruntled former congregants at the mall to the woman looming behind the documentary camera — Ebo and Director of Photography Alan Gwizdowski generate some illuminating two-shots of the couple that emphasize the evolving push-and-pull of their charged, complex dynamic through quotidian interactions: Though they sit at opposite ends of an ostentatiously long table for breakfast, they also rap along to the radio together in the car with an ease that belies a lifetime of loyalty.
Underneath the sheen of their well-appointed life, and even below the film’s mockery of the Childs’ materialism and callous weaponization of their spiritual leadership, a dark underbelly belies the true bleakness of the film’s outlook. Ebo does well to reveal the actual specifics of the accusations against Lee-Curtis in fits and spurts, dropping at first only that the accusers were “consenting adults.” By the time the audience fully grasps the nature of the pastor’s “crimes,” it is also clear that his behavior — that is, his queer longing — will continue, as will his manipulative abuse of power to satisfy that longing.
Brown plays Lee-Curtis as a man thoroughly convinced of his own divinely ordained gifts as a pastor, so much so that he might reasonably compensate for his forbidden desires or even redeem himself in the eyes of God from the pulpit alone. Recorded preaching against the “homosexual agenda,” slick and powerfully embodied in front of thousands of congregants, he betrays no inner turmoil. Trinitie, too, is far less concerned with her husband’s sinfulness than with their ability to keep drawing congregants.
In a Q&A after the movie, Brown spoke to the disquiet within his character, noting that he took on the role with a mind towards the LGBTQ+ Christians in his own family. “It’s those conversations that my character is carrying with him, recognizing that he has desires that don’t fit into this box of Southern Baptist megachurch,” Brown said. The weight of that representation is felt in Brown’s performance, though necessarily as an undercurrent to the moral convolution of his character.
“Honk for Jesus” doesn’t get much from its supporting performances, with the exception of Nicole Beharie (a sleeper star of this year’s Sundance) as one half of Pastor and Pastor Sumpter, the co-preaching couple — a “gimmick” that the Childs’ fear is hard to compete with — who preside over a rival church where congregation numbers have swelled since Wander to Greater Paths closed down. The dueling young upstarts/old vets trope can get tired, but the foursome milk hilarity out of their scenes together, buoyed by a few well-placed “God bless”’s.
The film’s production also sparks a sense of play; the Childs’ are shrouded in immense wealth and unafraid to flaunt it. A memorable scene lets Hall and Brown offer a series of inspired reads of the word “Prada” as they brandish their massive walk-in closet for the camera crew, lined with Trinitie’s extravagant church hats and Lee-Curtis’ rainbow of designer suits, which he has a habit of taking off. The class critique is salient, if less biting than what’s levied at other targets.
Despite (or perhaps through) its comedic tone, “Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul” tackles its most important threads, including homophobia and masculinity in the Black church, with a clear-eyed nuance. Ultimately, almost every soul in the movie seems too corroded — be it with pettiness, insecurity, or insidiousness — to be saved. But like the dignity-shredding roadside ministry Trinitie and Lee-Curtis set up to advertise their comeback, what makes “Honk for Jesus” so discomfiting is also what makes it difficult to look away from, despite any unevenness. The rising industry duo of Adamma Ebo and her twin sister Adanne Ebo, a producer on the film, announce themselves on the big screen with a baptizing splash.
—Amelia Roth-Dishy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @scallionshmear.