There’s a devilish, damnation-worthy idea at the heart of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, writer-director Adamma Ebo’s satire about the pastor and first lady of a Southern Baptist mega-church who scramble to reclaim their past glory—and keep their marriage alive—after a scandal sends their congregation scattering. Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), the staggeringly charismatic pastor of Atlanta’s Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, is the source of all the trouble, having instigated more than one illicit affair. But it’s his dutiful wife, Trinitie (Regina Hall), who’s left to do most of the heavy lifting. She’s chosen to stand by her husband’s side, facing up to his misdeeds and trying to clean up his messes, even as he peacocks around in his expensive suits, readying himself for his public redemption.
That setup is rich with possibilities, especially considering the couple have also welcomed a documentary filmmaker into their midst, to capture the events leading up to their church’s reopening. In doing so, they fail to realize how much of their own messy lives will be revealed by the camera: Lee-Curtis seems clueless that his comeback is destined to fail, while Trinitie paddles hard to stem the potential damage. Ebo mines a lot of territory here, skewering the excessive spending of church officials who preach, hard, against sins they freely commit themselves. She’s attuned to the reality of women who work overtime to make their weak husbands look good. And she especially makes a point to call out the hypocrisy of Black churches that advocate love for all human beings—as long as they’re not gay.
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Yet there’s almost too much going on in Honk for Jesus. The film jumps from one thematic thread to another without exploring any of them thoroughly, and even so, some sequences go on longer than they should. When Lee-Curtis and Trinitie become desperate to drum up attendees for the reopening, they turn to standing by the highway, advertising their upcoming event as if it were a circus—a portent if there ever were one. Lee-Curtis shouts authoritatively through a bullhorn, while Trinitie is left to the indignity of hopping around in her high heels and church finery, holding up a sign to entice passersby. We’ve already taken stock of how Lee-Curtis controls and humiliates Trinitie; his manipulations intensify the more desperate he gets. And even though she occasionally stands up for herself, her job, in the end, is to stick by him. The roadside dance of desperation, which, used more sparingly, would have been a great and potent sight gag, goes on for way too long, belaboring the point.
Somehow, though, the actors hold this story together: Brown flutters between wholly believable earnestness and snakelike artifice, often in a single moment. You want to like Lee-Curtis, and Brown makes you feel some sympathy for him, but the feelings he draws out are complex and thorny. And Hall has some terrific moments, including one in which Trinitie proudly shows Lee-Child an expensive and inventively space-age hat she intends to wear on comeback Sunday, and he cuts it—and her—down with spiteful, ageist rhetoric. The disappointment on her face, tinged with anger, is a galaxy of feeling compressed into a few compact seconds.
But it’s Nicole Beharie, in a supporting role, who practically walks off with the movie. She plays Shakura Sumpter, the slick co-pastor—with her husband, Keon (Conphidance, who had his breakthrough in the TV series Little America)—of a rising church that’s likely to cash in on the misfortunes of Wander to Greater Paths. Shakura recites scripture with the chipmunk brightness of an A-student. And even as she expresses fervent sympathy for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie’s predicament, she views their failure as her own glittering path to glory. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is truly in tune with the excessively performative angle of religion: the pageantry and show-biz are all part of it, but they can also be used to mask rampant ambition and avarice. As Beharie plays her, Shakura is a future star: she sees her name written in lights—or is it the glory of God? Both are so blinding it’s hard to tell which is which.
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