Towards the end of “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul,” Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) stands at the pulpit of an empty and echoing Atlanta megachurch. The once overflowing pews have fallen silent following a mass exodus of congregants in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal involving the pastor. As Lee-Curtis rehearses the sermon he plans to deliver the day the church reopens, his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) watches silently from the front row.
Lee-Curtis delivers his sermon, one wrought with cliches about the imperfections of man and God’s forgiveness. Brown – usually an actor so confident in his stillness – turns that strength on its head, his features quivering with insincerity. Alan Gwizdowski’s cinematography suddenly evokes a tawdry sports drama, spotlights swirling around Brown’s head like a halo with a contrived sense of warmth, a tepid, generically motivational score stirring underneath his words.
When he finishes, Trinitie asks him why he’s not telling the truth. Whatever paltry spell may have existed breaks. Lee-Curtis claims that WAS the truth. Trinitie simply replies: “Then we should probably practice and make it more convincing, huh?”
Performativity is the name of the game in “Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul,” a scathing, wickedly funny satire of religion, misogyny, homophobia, and everything in between. Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, the film is not just interested in the tension between performance and truth, but also in what happens when you can’t tell the difference anymore.
The film picks up a year after Lee-Curtis has been accused of having sexual relationships with young men, while simultaneously spouting homophobic sentiments to his congregation every Sunday. The Childs, desperate to regain their former glory, invite a documentary film crew to chronicle their attempt to reopen their church, Wander to Greater Paths.
With this set-up in mind, the film slips back and forth between faux-documentary scenes and “real life” shots seamlessly, using aspect ratio changes to signal to the audience whose perspective we’re living in. This innovative mockumentary structure picks apart the central tension that exists within organized religion, particularly that of the scale the Childs have built for themselves. At its core, religion is a personally held belief – a truth held only between you and your higher power, whatever that may be. But for the Childs, their private relationship with God has become a public endeavor – one perfectly calibrated to the whims of the masses, and to whatever can win them the most acclaim, power, and money. When Trinitie buys a new church hat, Lee-Curtis berates her for her choice, claiming the hat makes them look old and uncool. “There’s just something about a pastor in Prada,” Trinitie says as the couple parades around their in-house designer closet, trying to find the perfect outfit for their Easter Sunday return. The public-facing image is the only one that matters.
By virtue of the film’s mockumentary device, we see where the public and private versions of the Childs intersect and diverge. The clarity of those points is a testament to Brown and Hall’s performances. As Lee-Curtis in the documentary scenes, Brown vibrates with an inability to keep still. He projects the appearance of confidence through his booming voice and constantly flickering eyes, trying to reach everyone in the room no matter how large. Casting an actor like Brown – someone who can command confidence and moral authority with stoicism, able to convey nuanced emotions with just a slight raise of an eyebrow – in this showboat of a role is a stroke of genius. Everything about Lee-Curtis contradicts what we as an audience have come to view as Brown’s strengths, giving the character an innate insecurity he can’t quite shake.
As Trinitie, Hall proves she’s not just a comedic force to be reckoned with, but a dramatic one as well. She’s always been more of an interior actor than she’s given credit for – in films like “Support the Girls,” she hides her weariness behind a tight-lipped grin. Here, as soon as the documentary cameras turn her way, her voice jumps up multiple octaves, and a thousand-watt smile overtakes half of her face. But even that perfectly-tailored expression can’t hold back the frantic intensity in her eyes – the worry that she could lose everything in a second.
As a filmmaker, Ebo is able to separate herself from the fictional filmmakers of the documentary, projecting different emotions onto the Childs from the two different perspectives. With Trinitie in particular, you can feel the fake filmmakers judging her decision to stick by Lee-Curtis, periodically ignoring her requests to turn the cameras off, zooming in on her face when she’s in various stages of distress. But along with that judgment, there’s also a desire to find out who the woman under the big hats and staged smiles really is – almost a blistering need to paint her as just another one of Lee-Curtis’ victims, collateral damage in his wake. But behind the scenes, Ebo finds a little more understanding for Trinitie and has no desire to victimize her. Because there is one thing that the fictional filmmaker can’t conceptualize – that Trinitie might want this return to glory just as much as her husband does, and might be just as lost without it.