‘Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’ Review: Regina Hall Plays a Disgraced Pastor’s Wife in So-So Megachurch Satire
How to take on the hypocrisy of megachurch culture on a micro budget? That’s the quandary at the center of the Ebo twins’ “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” An easy-target satire of a disgraced Southern Baptist pastor and the first lady who stood by his side amid scandal, packed as a Christopher Guest-style mock documentary, writer-director Adamma Ebo’s indie comedy (produced by sister Adanne) should tickle those who share her skepticism of organized religion — especially the profit-oriented variety — but doesn’t go much deeper than the 15-minute short film on which it’s based.
The biggest upgrade here comes from recasting power couple Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs with Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall , actors who bring layers to what could have been a one-joke wonder. That joke, which proves plenty convenient for a film made on limited resources, hinges on how a congregation that once numbered more than 25,000 has now dwindled to fewer than half a dozen (the “Devout Five”), and the lengths the Childs must go to win back the others.
The feature does an especially satisfying job of expanding Hall’s role, since Trinitie is grappling with many of the same questions as the Welcome to Greater Paths Baptist Church population at large. In 2010, when Atlanta bishop Eddie Long was accused of lavishing gifts and trips and cars upon teenage boys enrolled in his church’s youth program, his followers were torn over whether to let his humiliation shake their faith in what he’d been preaching. “Honk for Jesus” represents Ebo’s response to that controversy. While the helmer doesn’t have much sympathy for the disgraced church leader (also accused of sexual misconduct with barely legal male parishioners), she’s fascinated by those who could find it in their souls to forgive him — first among them his first lady.
Trinitie could have walked out on Lee-Curtis. She could have left him to atone for his sins alone. But she stood by her husband, and “Honk for Jesus” treats her as both the strength behind his original success and the one believer he cannot afford to lose. If the Childs ever hope to “get some tushies back in those pews,” they will definitely need Trinitie to set the example — a bit like Tammy Faye Bakker, minus all the actual good she did. Hall plays her character as a kind of martyr, a loyal wife who has learned how to fake a smile and say what other people want to hear, when her true feelings are clearly boiling beneath the surface.
Ebo uses the mock-doc format to amplify this dynamic even further. Trinitie is constantly observed performing for the camera, going so far as to order film-within-the-film director Anita when to cut or retake certain scenes. Hall’s a great actor, but Trinitie is not, and much of the comedy — but also the film’s most human dimension — comes from watching the first lady struggle to suppress what she really thinks.
It’s not anything new to allow a faux-reality character to break the fourth wall like this. But unlike Jim on “The Office,” who was constantly shooting “Can you believe this guy?” expressions at the crew, Trinitie is determined to make her husband/boss look his best. But even she has her limits, and “Honk for Jesus” ends up being less about whether WTGP can recover its flock than about just how far Lee-Curtis can push this woman before she snaps. The proverbial last straw: pantomiming for Christ, a kind of outrageous religious minstrelsy routine involving white face and jazz hands.
It’s gutsy — but not nearly as funny as the filmmakers imagine — to ask Hall to stand alongside an actual road in that getup, or flash an actual “Honk for Jesus” sign in her Sunday best (created by Kenyatta Williams, the Childses’ over-the-top designer wardrobe serves as a running joke). But this in-character stunt points to an entire realm of comedy the project leaves largely untapped: What if Brown and Hall had gone full-Borat and actually tried interacting with real people? There’s something entirely too safe about skewering religion when all the extras are scripted professionals.
That said, it’s impressive that the Ebos were able to gain access to the Cathedral at Chapel Hill, another Georgia megachurch mired in controversy after its televangelist founder was exposed as an adulterer. Dressed up with makeshift “Welcome to Greater Paths” signs, the massive structure looks like a cross between a sports arena and a Mormon tabernacle. The building radiates exactly the kind of decadence the Ebos set out to critique, while lending serious production value to the film (in the short, the film only pretended to go inside). Adamma Ebo adds a subplot involving an up-and-coming church down the street, Heaven’s House, where married-couple pastors Shakira and Keon Sumpter (Nicole Behari and Conphidance) are the direct beneficiaries of all the worshippers who fled WTGP.
But there’s something confusing in the way the movie treats the mock-doc elements. Editors Ali Greer and Stacy Moon alternate between footage where the Childs know they’re on camera and more artfully lensed widescreen segments in which they presumably let down their guard (like an intimate bedroom scene that shows Lee-Curtis struggling to stay aroused in the missionary position, or the tense drive home when Trinitie and Lee-Curtis let loose to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”). But if Anita failed to capture any of these moments, then does her “documentary” even realize what charlatans they are? And though real-life Eddie Long was exposed for being inappropriate with teen boys, the way this movie uses similar temptations to undermine Lee-Curtis’ masculinity feels distressingly homophobic. (In another director’s hands, such proclivities would actually make him more complex, the way it did Hugh Jackman’s character in “Bad Education.”)
Watching “Honk for Jesus,” it’s hard not to be reminded of another Sundance movie from four years earlier: “Come Sunday,” easily one of the best Netflix originals to be found on the service, and a film that has probably been seen by fewer people than WTGP drew on a good Sunday. What the Ebos’ satire lacks is any sense of sincerity on the Childses’ part. They show Trinitie and Lee-Childs posing in their sports cars, dressing in Prada and buying $2,000 hats, and this would seem to be the reason they want a second chance. Do they believe a word of what they preach? In “Come Sunday,” a preacher has to rebuild from scratch after a crisis of conscience forces him to step away from the church. Here, the Childs aren’t interested in saving souls so much as their own reputations.