Producers: Rowan Riley, Daniel Kaluuya, Amandla Crichlow, Matthew Cooper, Jessamine Burgum, Adanne Ebo, Adamma Ebo, Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown and Kara Durrett Director: Adamma Ebo Screenplay: Adamma Ebo Cast: Regina Hall, Sterling K. Brown, Austin Crute, Conphidance, Nicole Beharie, Devere Rogers, Avis-Marie Barnes, Olivia D. Dawson, Mike Dyl, Nastashia L. Fuller, Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Selah Kimbro Jones, Perris Drew and Andrea Laing Distributor: Focus Features
Adamma Ebo’s debut feature, an expansion of her 2018 short film, shows the perils inherent in that sort of operation. An idea that works for fifteen minutes can, unless carefully refashioned, be numbingly repetitive when stretched to a hundred, however strikingly appointed and energetically acted. “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” does not avoid that pitfall.
A Southern Baptist mega-church called Wander to Greater Paths has been closed for a year as a result of a scandal involving its flamboyant pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown); the nature of his malfeasance will be fully revealed only in the last act with the appearance of a seething young man named Khalil (Austin Crute), but it’s obviously modeled on the scandal that engulfed Georgia mega-church pastor Eddie Long in 2010-2011.
Now, though the congregation has dwindled to a mere handful, Childs and his first lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) plan a festive reopening on Easter Sunday—a resurrection of sorts. Unfortunately, two of their former followers, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie) are arranging to open a new, enlarged campus of their rival mega-church, the popular Heaven’s House, the same day.
That, essentially, is the entire plot, which Ebo chooses to present in the form of a mockumentary in which an unseen filmmaker named Anita follows Lee-Curtis and Trinitie in the week before Easter, though there are a few inserted scenes, shot in a different format, showing the two in intimate circumstances apart from the footage shot by Anita. (The editing by Ali Greer and Stacy Moon is sometimes clumsy, but you could argue that mimics the failings of many documenatries.) The couple show off their property (actually the Cathedral at Chapel Hill outside Atlanta, another mega-church roiled by scandal and here outfitted with signage renaming it) as well as their extravagant personal possessions (including closets of expensive clothes designed by Lorraine Coppin), while Lee-Curtis rehearses the confessional sermon he’s preparing to give.
Throughout Trinitie tries to be supportive and upbeat, but occasionally her fury at having to stand by her man and playing second fiddle to him breaks through the smiles, and ultimately her husband’s demand that she give a humiliating performance in white mime makeup proves the last straw, representing as it does a demeaning reverse blackface.
And that’s just part of the duo’s desperate effort to attract a crowd for their supposed extravaganza, the most notable aspect of which is to stand on the highway adjacent to the church’s entrance holding signs exhorting drivers to honk in support—thus the title. Unfortunately, the ploy has drawbacks, though Trinitie tries to make it more effective by dragging a particularly hideous statue out to curbside. One passerby excoriates Trinitie directly, and Khalil’s arrival holds up traffic interminably on the highway.
The primary strength of the picture lies in the lead performances. Brown holds nothing back as Lee-Curtis, a man who projects vitality and self-confidence as he struts about in his flashy wardrobe with a wide grin, but who can’t help but show signs of strain as his rousing attempts to deflect blame fail to convince even his wife that they’ll be enough to salvage the ruin he’s brought on them. Hall is even better as a woman fighting to reclaim her position of prominence as well as her husband’s—at one point she shows herself as ambitious to reclaim her place on one of the sanctuary’s gaudy thrones as she is to see Lee-Curtis restored to his.
But Abo doesn’t find a way to expand Lee-Curtis and Trinitie into genuinely multifaceted characters. They do occasionally show glimmers of recognition of their hypocrisy and unbridled lust for power and wealth (at times, in fact, the movie seems to be inviting some sympathy for their plight), but basically they remain one-note caricatures of religious leadership perverted for personal ends.
Nor is the script inventive enough about contriving amusing situations for them to confront. There is a delicious moment when Trinitie, out to buy a new chapeau for the Easter service, encounters Denetta (Olivia D. Dawson), an ex-congregant, and the two share catty banter. (The hat she eventually purchases, at an exorbitant price, doesn’t impress her husband, but would have gotten a rise out of Curtis, the comic-book kid who comments regularly on church ladies and their headdresses.) But a luncheon she has with her mother (Avis Marie Barnes) falls flat. And though the few inserts with the Sumpters slyly suggest that they’re just like Lee-Curtis and Trinitie were at the beginning of their huckster careers, feigning piety in search of earthly success, more could certainly have been done with the few remaining acolytes of the Wander community, the so-called Devoted Five (Robert Yatta, Greta Marable Glenn, Crystal Alicia Garrett, Selah Kimbro Jones and Perris Drew), who are introduced amusingly early on but then pretty much disappear.
Cinematographer Alan Gwizdowski takes advantage of the Chapel Hill complex to give the modestly-budgeted picture a sense of breadth, and production designer John Collins and costumer Lorraine Coppin don’t stint on the ostentatious lifestyle Lee-Curtis and Trinitie claim as their deserts. Marcus Norris’s score tries to add to the sense of embarrassing excess on display.
But though the film addresses a subject of enormous significance in a religious culture increasingly animated by the so-called prosperity gospel and the outrages it invites—just think of Brooklyn’s self-styled bishop Lamor Miller-Whitehead, who was reportedly robbed of jewelry worth more than a million dollars while he was conducting services this summer—it’s sadly small-minded in taking it on. One wants sharpness in a satire—a scalpel is always preferable to a blunderbuss—but this one employs a peashooter, and even actors of the caliber of Hall and Brown, as enjoyable as they are, can’t give it the heft it ought to have.