August 30, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Adamma Ebo
Culture Representation: Taking place in Atlanta, the comedic film “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” features an all-African American cast of characters representing the working-class, and middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A megachurch’s preacher and his wife strive to make a comeback after his fall from grace due to sexual misconduct scandals.
Culture Audience: “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, and will appeal to viewers who like mockumentaries that are satires of people who place more value on fame and fortune than on honesty and morality.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a comedic mockumentary that adeptly skewers religious hypocrisy, vanity and greed in megachurch culture. The movie’s pacing drags in some parts, but Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown captivate with their lead performances as disgraced megachurch couple Trinitie Childs and Lee-Curtis Childs. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” also offers bittersweet observations that are examples of the religious adage, “All that glitters is not gold.”
Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is Ebo’s feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film’s producers include Hall, Brown, Daniel Kaluuya, Adamma Ebo and her identical twin Adanne Ebo. Jordan Peele is one of the executive producers. It’s a movie that puts a spotlight on the impact of religious leaders on African American communities and what can happen if one of those leaders is knocked down from a pedestal and tries to get back up on top again.
Although some things in the movie might seem over-the-top ridiculous, anyone who has followed news about scandal-plagued religious leaders will know that many of their antics, denials and posturings are very close to what’s portrayed in “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” The movie gets its title from several scenes in the movie where Trinitie, at Lee-Curtis’ persuasion, holds up a sign that reads “Honk for Jesus” to passing cars on the street, in desperate attempts to attract followers. Over time, Lee-Curtis convinces Trinitie to degrade herself when holding up the “Honk for Jesus” sign, such as telling her to shake her rear end in a sexually suggestive manner.
Beyond the obvious comedic parts, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is a searing indictment of the patriarchal ways of megachurch culture and how women are expected to be subservient to men. In the movie, Lee-Curtis is the one who caused the scandal that lead to his megachurch’s downfall, but his loyal wife Trinitie is the one who gets the brunt of the pressure to redeem their reputation. Lee-Curtis makes demands on Trinitie that slowly chip away at her soul, and Trinitie has to decide if her marriage to Lee-Curtis is worth this erosion of her self-esteem and self-worth.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” begins with Trinitie doing a sit-down interview by herself in the empty building of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, which Trinitie and Lee-Curtis founded but whose congregation has drastically shrunk from 26,000 members to five loyal members. The church’s followers have diminished, but Lee-Curtis has accumulated a lot of personal wealth that he and Trinitie are determined to keep. Trinitie and Lee-Curtis not only believe that they deserve this wealth but that it’s also God’s destined plan for them.
A documentarian named Anita Bonet (who is heard occasionally in the movie but never seen on camera) is directing a documentary about Trinitie and Lee-Curtis and their attempt to make a comeback after Lee-Curtis experienced several accusations of sexual misconduct. Several of Lee-Curtis’ accusers are suing him over these allegations. The details of these allegations are revealed about halfway through the movie but won’t be mentioned in this review.
Trinitie says in her interview: “Every woman is not built for the responsibility of being a first lady. Lee-Curtis and I, we’re just going to the other side … You know, have you ever seen a rat go from the inside of a house to the outside of a house? They chew through. So, we’re going to gnaw through the hardest parts.”
Lee-Curtis is arrogant and unapologetic about his alleged misdeeds. He also has unwavering confidence that the couple’s comeback, which they plan to take place during the upcoming Easter Sunday, will be entirely successful. Over time, some cracks in his veneer of morality start to show, which should come as no surprise when considering many real-life religious leaders who go through scandals with former secrets that expose their hypocrisy.
The mockumentary includes interviews with Lee-Curtis, Trinitie, some of the couple’s supporters, some of the couple’s critics and people from the general public who are somewhat neutral. In addition, there are snippets of “archival” footage of Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church services in the couple’s heyday at the church. In one of his sermons, Lee-Curtis shows his homophobia by saying that the “homosexual agenda” is “disrespectful to marriage. Take it from me: I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti.”
The Childs couple’s five loyal followers are Deacon Alastor Culpepper (played by Robert Yatta); his wife, Deaconess Culpepper (played by Greta Glenn, also known as Greta Marable Glenn); Kensington Straterly (played by Perris Drew), a Divinity School graduate student; Sapphire Devaughn (played by Crystal Alicia Garrett); and Aria Devaughn (played by Selah Kimbro Jones), Sapphire’s daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Kensington says, “Pastor Childs is ahead of his time. He’s a visionary.”
While Trinitie and Lee-Curtis try to win back their flock of followers, they have some competition: a polite younger pastor named Keon Sumpter (played by Conphidance) and his devoted wife Shakura Sumpter (played by Nicole Beharie), who want to form their own megachurch in Atlanta. The Sumpters have founded Heaven’s House Baptist Church, which has more than 1,000 congregants so far and has gained many new members who used to be congregants of the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. And what a coincidence: Heaven’s House Baptist Church plans to have its grand opening on the same Easter Sunday that the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church plans to re-open.
“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” mines this megachurch rivalry for all of what it’s worth, but the more interesting power dynamics are between Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. There’s not enough shown about Keon and Shakura to get a handle on their true personalities. Keon and Shakura have the polish of religious people who don’t want to say a bad thing about anyone in public, but there’s no real indication of what Keon and Shakura are really like in private. The movie seems to suggest that Keon and Shakura have not yet been corrupted by greed and fame because Keon and Shakura aren’t at the megachurch level where Lee-Curtis and Trinitie used to be and which Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are trying to reclaim.
Some scenes in the movie work better than others. For example, a scene of Trinitie visiting a hat shop isn’t as funny as it could have been. A much better comedic scene is one where Trinitie and Lee-Curtis interact with their few remaining congregants at the Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, in a pathetic attempt to pretend as if all is going well at the church. Another amusing scene shows the supposedly pious Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, who publicly preach about the evils of cursing, but privately in their car, they rap along to Crime Mob’s curse-filled song “Knuck If You Buck.”
There’s a sex scene in the movie that looks a little out of place because it’s the only scene that doesn’t look like it was filmed for a documentary. However, the purpose of this scene is made clear later in the movie when Lee-Curtis’ sex scandals are revealed in more detail. There are other clues that point to the nature of these sexual misconduct allegations and the damaging impact that Lee-Curtis’ actions have had on his accusers.
Lee-Curtis is very transparent in his ambitions, so his character is very easy to predict. Trinitie is less predictable and more interesting because she has moments where she looks like she begins to wonder if she made the right decision to “stand by her man.” There’s a very telling scene in the movie where Trinitie has breakfast with her mother Sabina (played by Avis-Marie Barnes), who gives advice that is an example of how sexist patriarchy is enabled and encouraged in the name of religious tradition.
Aside from certain aspects of church and religion, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” offers social commentary on what lengths people will go to, in order to pursue fame and fortune; create an “aspirational” wealthy image; and try to give the impression of having a “perfect” life when one’s life is actually falling apart. The characters in this movie just happen to be African American. However, the movie cleverly brings up issues that are timeless and relevant to any culture.
Focus Features will release “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” in U.S. cinemas and on Peacock on September 2, 2022.