Adult Twins Adamma and Adanne Ebo satirize Black megachurch Evangelical culture in their new film, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Adamma makes her feature debut as writer and director, while Adanne produces, and the result is a film which is both less outright funny and more interestingly humanist than one expects from something labelled “satire”. We think of satire as equaling comedic, but while Honk has some funny moments, it is more relationship drama than anything else, and Adamma Ebo uses satire in its classic sense of a work exposing or denouncing corruption. The film stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as an Evangelical power couple brought down by a sex scandal and trying to work their way back to the top of the megachurch heap.
The film uses a semi-mockumentary format to follow pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Brown) and his first lady, Trinitie (Hall), as they attempt to reopen their megachurch, Wander to Greater Paths. They once boasted a congregation over twenty-five thousand, now they’re down to five faithful congregants, including a child, Aria (Selah Kimbro Jones), who thinks church is “theater”. Lee-Curtis is a charismatic pastor preaching prosperity gospel and using his pulpit to brag about his designer duds and luxury cars, and also to condemn the “homosexual lifestyle”. Trinitie is the brains behind WTGP, a silent, smiling support for her husband while he’s preaching, but behind the scenes, it’s clear she is the reason Lee-Curtis got to such a big stage in the first place.
Honk is steeped in Evangelical culture, but if you’re looking for a takedown, this isn’t it. Ebo saves her arrows for the hypocrisy represented by the Childs’, both their materialism and Lee-Curtis’s specific hypocrisy in preaching against homosexuality while being closeted himself. Ebo also takes aim at a power structure that forces the equally charismatic and far brighter Trinitie to assume such a blank persona in public—all smiles, no comments. In contrast, the hot young preachers on the block absorbing the Childs’ wandering flock are married couple and co-pastors Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie, respectively). In contrast to Trinitie’s conspicuous yet silent support of her husband, Shakura is on stage with Keon, co-leading worship and therapy sessions and sharing in all churchly duties. Trinitie, meanwhile, is relegated to traditional ministries like women’s outreach and education support.
Brown is very good as Lee-Curtis, part himbo and part man struggling with himself and his commitment to a path that does not allow for self-acceptance (not to mention the implication that he groomed and did something undefined but implied inappropriate with very young men). But this is Regina Hall’s show from top to bottom, as she switches from Trinitie’s smiling public face to an increasingly brittle, bitter private self, forced to swallow repeated indignities and humiliations because of her husband. Worse, when she asks her mother for help, she is basically told divorce is not an option, no matter how bad it gets. This is not unusual in traditionally Christian households, but Hall’s broken expression says everything about how truly damaging it is.
Ebo’s use of the mockumentary format, though, is not entirely successfully. She switches aspect ratios to denote when we’re in a documentary scene versus a narrative scene, and it’s not hard to follow which is which, but the mockumentary format is most successful when filmmakers are all-in on the concept. Here, it feels like a little bit of a cheat, a way to allow for fourth-wall breaking questions to be asked directly to the Childses. This does result in a MAGNIFICENT monologue from Hall, but at the same time, I wish Ebo either had either gone all the way with mockumentary or abandoned it entirely. With only a slight reframing, Hall could still deliver that climactic speech, and the narrative structure wouldn’t feel so much like cheating to get the desired results down the line.
Regina Hall is enough reason to watch Honk for Jesus., and anyone who spent any time in a megachurch will recognize plenty of details—although the megachurch my family belonged to was rocked by a sex scandal and attendance didn’t dip THAT much, although I guess that speaks directly to the various hypocrisies Ebo frames throughout her film. But lest you think Ebo is throwing poison darts, she takes pains to show how life-changing a spiritual message can be. In some ways, it makes Lee-Curtis’s scandal worse, because it’s a betrayal of the very people who relied on him for spiritual support, and in other ways it highlights the materialist rot at the heart of megachurch culture. Ebo’s darts are never aimed at Christians or Christianity itself—which is arguably a slight miss, as the entire corrupt megachurch system is built on hypocrisies baked into Christianity—but in Honk for Jesus., Ebo shows compassion for her failed and failing protagonists. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are imperfect people in a deeply imperfect institution, but there is always room for forgiveness.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is in theaters and streaming on Peacock from September 2, 2022.