Sundance 2020 Premiere: “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul”
Faux documentaries are nothing new and hard to pull off successfully. Adamma Ebo’s “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a fierce, funny, and ultimately powerful takedown of the MegaChurch ministries who wear their hypocrisy on their sleeves.
Produced by her twin sister Adanne, the film follows (mockumentary style) Southern Baptist pastor Lee Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his First Lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) who stands by his side amid a sexual scandal involving younger men that has rocked their once-flourishing megachurch.
As The Childs tell the camera, their congregation once numbered more than 25,000 souls. Now, there are less than 10. It is humorously uncomfortable to watch Pastor Childs stand before what is basically a handful of friends and scream the Holy Ghost scriptures as if he were playing to an arena.
The Pastor’s plan to re-open the “Wander the Greater Path Baptist Church” seems half-baked at best. Most of his flock has defected to the rival “Heaven’s House Baptist Church” run by the condescendingly “holy” Pastor and First Lady Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie).
As the pastor reveals his lunkhead idea to open only two weeks away from Easter Sunday, the madness in his non-method and damaged ego become clear.
For Pastor Childs, it is not about getting souls in his pews to share the word of God. It is about reclaiming his reputation, getting the money rolling back in to keep his lavish lifestyle, and (perhaps most importantly to him) beating the other church to the punch. Childs must be number one. His tunnel vision on that issue fuels the mess that is sinking him.
Sterling K. Brown sells it. His performance captures everything that is ugly about these types of grifters who lie cheat and steal in the name of the lord. Brown’s comedic timing is strikingly good, and he is very funny, but the actor is pure excellence in his more serious moments. As the film becomes darker moving into its final stretch, Brown navigates the tonal shifts with ease, never hitting a false beat. This is a perfect performance.
The film both examines and rightly mocks the hypocrisy in people such as The Childs. As the pastor rips through his fiery sermons against the “unholy nature” of homosexuality, we see him in bed with his wife, begging to do anal sex after he fails to achieve an erection doing it “the regular way”, as Trinitie calls it.
As First Lady Trinitie Childs, Regina Hall is captivating and walks away with the film. Her character struggles deep within her soul to find the forgiveness she so wants to afford her husband.
Trinitie is a martyr, of sorts. She is far from clean in all of this, as morality dictates that she should leave her sexually deceitful husband, yet she stands beside him with a grin that hides a lot. On the matter of finances, the First Lady of the church is not resisting spending her parishioners’ money on clothes, outfits, and especially hats. They are drowning in debt and bad press, but there she is in the local mall searching for new brims. A trip that does not go well for her.
Ebo’s screenplay and especially Regina Hall’s masterful performance induce some sympathy for Trinitie. Hall is a force of bottled emotions. Behind her phony smile is a woman who is burning to be heard and to let out all the pain and shame she has inside. There are moments when Hall crushes our hearts with pity and others where she makes us laugh out loud at the character’s foolishness. This is a tremendous work by an actress with great range, who continually proves that she is one of our finest.
As serious as the film gets, it is equally (and frequently) very funny. Every laugh comes from something real and each one hits.
When Hall’s character tries to rationalize why she spends so much money on expensive clothing, she explains with a smile, “God don’t fit into ugly.” This is one of many laugh-out-loud lines found within Ebo’s clever and quick-witted screenplay. This film takes on a big target and nails every moment.
Adamma Ebo’s work brings real insight and sharp satire into what can only be described as “for profit” churches. The film rightfully judges this type of ego-driven swindlers but also recognizes that they are humans, not everyone a monster.
Ebo’s film doesn’t go overboard with any aspect of the production. From the costume design to the churches, to the portrayals of the ministry and its followers, the work doesn’t need to resort to caricature. Presented honestly, the world of the megachurch grifters skewers itself.
Loosely based on real life scandal-plagued minister Eddie Long, Ebo’s film explores the complex and hypocritical masculinity issues Pastor Childs deals with while suppressing his homosexuality, bringing a unique and deeper spin on the material, allowing it to become grounded in more of a reality than a somewhat similar piece like HBO’s “The Righteous Gemstones”. Where that show presents the scandalous, money-worshipping, televangelist family as buffoons, Ebo’s smart work shows the humanity (albeit massively flawed) within her characters.
Based on her short film of the same name, Adamma Ebo’s “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a delight. This is a film that finds the right balance of comedic and dramatic potency, satirical and sincere in equal measure.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul
Written and directed by Adamma Ebo
Starring Sterling K. Brown, Regina Hall, Nicole Beharie, Conphidance
Not Yet Rated, 104 Minutes, Ejime Productions, Pinky Promise