Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. is based off Adamma Ebo’s 2018 short film of the same name, which is available to view on YouTube. The allure can be easily identified; even having seeing the full-length version prior, the raw energy that attracted producers like Jordan Peele and Daniel Kaluuya into expanding the satirical exploration of celebrity servants of God through big(ger)-budget flair is palpable. Most of the scenes, if not everything, from the short film had been replicated: Pastor Lee-Curtis cursing on camera after stepping on gum with his expensive Italian loafers, his wife Trinitie’s simmering “Bless your heart” showdown with a former congregant of their church, the passionate delivery of the “God is not in the business of making perfect men” line. In this new allotted time, Ebo stretches the high-sung hubris and backroads self-denial of her characters and their antics into a sort of parody that wades in emotional depth and self-destructive duty. Seeing the original sermon is one thing, but seeing HFJSYS in its 102-minute glory is a renewed derivative, even if we’ve heard the lines before.
For one: Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. They step into God’s light as Pastor Lee-Curtis (Brown) and First Lady Trinitie (Hall), who attempt to reopen their Southern Baptist megachurch after allegations of Pastor Lee-Curtis’s misconduct forced them to shut down and for their church members to flee. The logistics of their comeback are filmed by a fictional documentary filmmaker named Anita (Andrea Laing), who remains off-screen but is addressed by the couple when something unbecoming is captured on video, like Trinitie’s gaze lingering on one of Lee-Curtis’s victims at the mall. Anita may have approached them with a specific angle in mind, but the circus of affairs is all embodied by the Childs’ desperate measures to get their followers back into their pews as well as tackling their own shortcomings in their marriage and within themselves.
Honk for Jesus comes on the heels of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and I’m sure a lot of people will make comparative notes between the two. The Bakkers are based on actual people, and the Childs are caricatures of those real people. However, instead of coating the film in acidic humor, Ebo softens her characters’ errors with sympathetic flashes of loneliness. While the tonal difference between satire and drama might be jarring for some, the powerhouse performances that Brown and Hall deliver are absolutely compelling. “I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti,” Lee-Curtis says with a swaggering grin. He shares the outline of high-profile, big-spending pastors in Prada that will eventually meet their makers (fame-wise, that is); in this story, Child is accused of grooming young male churchgoers. His public denunciation of homosexuality colliding with his adamant denial of any wrongdoing makes for the obvious unreliable narrative that he provides (which works for the movie’s demonstration of hypocrisy), but in the quieter moments, Lee-Curtis’s bravado is fragmented into a man cornered by his faith. When Lee-Curtis practices his sermon before the big reopening (“God is not in the business of making perfect men great men”), the moment is so moving that those who believe that HFJSYS is meant to undermine religion will find that it comes in awe and respect.
And of course, Regina Hall. As Lee-Curtis manhandles most of the decisions and actions, Trinitie is the supportive wife, or First Lady, through scandal and redemption. I attest that Jessica Chastain favorably kills as Tammy Faye. But while we sympathize with Bakker because of her historical acts of kindness, I think we sympathize with Trinitie despite the circumstances because of Regina Hall. If Lee-Curtis is struggling in his relationship with God, Trinitie is struggling in her marriage to Lee-Curtis, who manipulates her throughout (in a scene that is admittedly on-the-nose, Lee-Curtis is unable to enjoy sex with Trinitie in the missionary position and coaxes her out of doing it the “normal” way that they’ve discussed). Characters who are asked about Trinitie display pity, while others are disgusted by her inaction. Initially, Trinitie might be obtusely loyal to the point of ineptitude. This might disguise the complexity that Hall plays Trinitie: docility in her eyes and conflict in her mind that my heart alternates between snickering and aching. I think there are a couple of ways to see her character, but I like to imagine that, similarly to Lee-Curtis’s notions of masculinity and faith, Trinitie’s convictions also begin to crack when doubts emerge. Whatever beliefs Trinitie will come to, Hall is there every step of the way.
Although I’m placing a lot of emphasis on the Childs’ development, HFJSYS is largely played for laughter. Some of it is conventional mockery while some of it is absurd gold (without spoilers, I lump Trinitie’s breaking point in both kinds). Some of the supporting characters, such as the Childs’ remaining “Divine Five” congregants and rival church power-Pastors-couple Sumpters (consisting of an underutilized Nicole Beharie efficiently utilizing her snarky-polite screen time), decorate the inane nature of megachurches and mass followings. In some way, I almost wish this was based on actual people so that Regina Hall can garner some award buzz (since 2000, half of the Best Actresses were awarded for biographical depictions). The crash and burn of high-profile celebrities, even in the church world, makes me cynical about people who blindly follows the word of others, but for Hall and Brown, I might be close to devotion.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
dir. Adamma Ebo
Opens Friday, 9/2 @ Kendall Square Cinema
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