Once upon a time, I was sitting at my (then) school’s mandatory Wednesday night chapel service. Technically speaking, you could skip these services, but not without some classic “Christian guilt”; the same guilt that Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. captures in a scene where Trinitie (Regina Hall), the wife of megachurch pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), runs into a former congregate of their church at the mall. This wacky school that I formerly attended also happened to be affiliated with a well-known Southern Baptist church a la the megachurch seen in Honk for Jesus. So with all of that said, the new Adamma Ebo-directed satire has plenty of great ideas in place — dare I say, enough to feed 5,000 — but its end result is a film that is more bark than bite and fails to sink its teeth into the real meat of the story.
At the beginning of Honk for Jesus, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and his wife, or the “First Lady” of the megachurch, Trinitie, are in the midst of planning their grand comeback to the Holy scene just in time for Easter with their own resurrection of sorts after a messy controversy resulted in the couple having to temporarily shut down their church. This church, however, is not your ordinary Southern Baptist church. This church has a congregation of 25,000 members and is all excess despite its grandiosity.
To the credit of Ebo, there is a specific aesthetic and vibe synonymous with a Southern Baptist church that is very difficult to capture or even put into words. Honk for Jesus nails it from the grainy television broadcast to the breathtaking sanctuary that on a Sunday morning is home to more people than the amount of those who show up to professional New York City sports games.
The most daring choice by Ebo is to blend a mockumentary and actual film style (think Curb Your Enthusiasm/Modern Family cutting to a film-like quality). This amalgamation works in the favor of the film much of the time, but there are also quite a few instances where it feels choppy because of the fact that some of these cuts occur within a second of the next shot in the same scene.
Lee-Curtis is a bit of a greatest hits mashup of the likes of Jerry Falwell (Sr. and Jr.), Joel Osteen, Jim Bakker, and a sprinkle of Andrew Tate. This designer clothes-wearing, Bughati-driving pastor has a lot hiding behind that fake smile he puts on. Sterling K. Brown perfectly plays the part and expresses such a lifeless soul behind the at-first welcoming eyes. And there’s something pitiful about both Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, particularly the former. When shit hits the fan and he loses his spotlight, you see the measures that someone desperate to regain that spotlight will go to — going as far as turning his wife into a clown for the church (more on that later).
Beside him is Trinitie, who resembles the stereotypical wife of a megachurch pastor. One could argue that she’s a bit of a clown — a metaphor used in the final moments of the film and perhaps another nod at Tammy Faye who was known for her makeup — for allowing herself to be trapped in this awful marriage because of the Christian expectation of what marriage is. After all, as the “First Lady” of her church, she’s the neck and body of the machine.
Like many of the churches you’ve experienced in your life, the church of Lee-Curtis Childs and Trinitie is supposed to be for the “Glory of God,” yet everything is done to pad the egos of those in a position of power. It’s a sad reality that Honk for Jesus should have tackled even further. It’s not that Ebo is afraid to stand up to the church in her film, that much is clear. But there are even deeper layers that aren’t even remotely touched. Perhaps that was never the intention, but then that begs the question of why make a film like Honk for Jesus?
The dynamic of the church and the actual controversy that occurs is what should have gotten more focus. It’s frustrating because while the rebuilding of the Childs’ church (and egos) is interesting, diving into the controversies a little bit more could give a glimpse for those who don’t have any knowledge or experience in the church. And by no means am I saying that the film had to show anything gross, but there’s nothing more than a mention or two that implies what went down. Look no further than The Eyes of Tammy Faye for a film that handled a similar story and balanced it better.
The church is a scary place in 2022; especially when the son of an infamous Southern Baptist pastor is caught in the midst of shenanigans with a pool boy. The hypocrisy is almost as bad as the motto of the church in Honk for Jesus: “Come as you are,” and its counterpoint, “God don’t like ugly.” I think anyone that is scarred from the church has a place in watching this film, unlike certain groups in real churches. But the lack of insight behind the curtain — or altar — results in a film that may not be as hokey as other films about religious subject matter but is also lacking a true punch. The opportunity to make a hard-hitting exposé on the church was there to be had like communion on a Sunday, but I guess that we’ll have to wait for the day that we get a film that does tackle the church without pulling punches. Can I get an amen to that?
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is in theaters and on Peacock now.