Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Honk For Jesus Save Your Soul
"Despite its compelling elements, the filmmaking falls too far on the clunky side."

Sometimes magnetic, sometimes awkward and disjointed, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul spotlights a unique culture: that of black mega churches in the southern USA. As the movie presents it, this is a world where pastors insist they need the most ridiculously expensive, colorful and showy suits imaginable, and their “first lady” wives seek out bizarre hats to make an equally status-based impression. The whole Christianity thing sometimes feels like an afterthought.

Writer/director Adamma Ebo, who collaborated with her sister and producer Adanne Ebo, grew up attending these kinds of churches in Atlanta, Georgia. She not only has an eye for the absurdity of the culture, but a sense for how the community relies on these churches to help define their identity, and how a lack of integrity on the part of leaders affects everyone.

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Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown star as Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and First Lady Trinitie Childs, whose proselytising built them an empire complete with a giant, arena-like church and a house that embodies conspicuous spending. As the movie begins, they’re hoping to recover from a massive fall from grace.

Elements of the couple’s predicament might call to mind the saga of white televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who rose to fame in the 1970s and 80s, only to crash down amid Jim’s sex scandal and revelations of their opulent lifestyle. Likewise, our anti-heroes’ mega church has fallen out of favour after Lee-Curtis’s sex scandal, whose details become clearer as the story progresses.

As the pastor starts to plot his comeback, his huge church, which once drew thousands of attendees, has not held service for months. After settling his scandal out of court, he hopes people will return to his cavernous church to again worship and fill his coffers. Complicating matters, his former assistant and his wife (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie) started a hot new congregation, and are about to open a new church to compete.

Despite this challenge, Lee-Curtis is so confident his troubles are behind him that he allows a documentary crew to film his escapades. The handling of this plot point is one of the movie’s weakest aspects. The filmmakers generally want to depict the story from the point of view of the documentary, but sometimes they don’t, and there’s not much rhyme or reason behind the decisions when to do which, leading to a disjointed narrative.

One strange aesthetic choice is that the documentary footage has the same texture and appearance as the rest of the movie. This sort of choice might make sense in an experimental narrative that wants you to question your perception, like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, but here it disorients the drama without much motivation. The characters know when the camera is there and when it isn’t, so it doesn’t make sense to deprive the audience of that information. Context clues usually help (if the characters are in their bedroom attempting intercourse, for example, there’s probably no documentary crew), but it’s an unnecessary hurdle to the characters’ present states of mind. We should be able to instantly know if they are being themselves or playing for the camera without having to rely on cues from the capable cast.

Hall and Brown prove to be the film’s greatest assets. They deftly move between broad comedy bits and moments that capture their humanity. Brown has fun expounding on his character’s collection or ridiculous suits and ties, while Hall brings the rituals of shopping and mingling to life.

Through the comedy, we sense the tragedy that the couple’s own hypocrisy brought their bad fortune upon them. Hall is particularly good at showing the heartbreak and humiliation Trinitie feels from her husband’s actions, as well as her determination to salvage the success and glory of the good old days.

Despite its compelling elements, the filmmaking falls too far on the clunky side. Bits that aren’t that funny meander on aimlessly at times, while other storylines with potential go unexplored. However, it’s nice to get a look into this strange world, with a perspective that, in its best moments, can be both bitingly satirical and empathetically poignant.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2022
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In the aftermath of a huge scandal, Trinitie Childs, the first lady of a prominent Southern Baptist megachurch, attempts to help her pastor husband, Lee-Curtis Childs, rebuild their congregation.

Festivals:

Sundance 2022

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