“Jesus was all about that shock value!” It’s one of many lines which comedically sum up Adamma Ebo’s feature-length debut Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. The satirical sharpness and cultural wit executed to perfection highlight how faith and showmanship have forever intertwined with Black churches.
Based on the 2019 short film of the same name, the updated adaptation stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs and Trinitie Childs, respectively. The Prada-loving, larger-than-life, and religiously devout husband and wife team hire a production crew to film a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary as they begin plans to re-launch their ministry on Easter Sunday. Through the three Rs – rebirth, renewal, and resurrection from the dead – this, supposedly, is meant to be the comeback of the century.
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As much as films present a universal quality, Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is intrinsically tailor-made for a Black audience who will appreciate the film’s nuances. If you – like me – grew up around Black churches, Ebo’s film resonates loudly. The copious references are all too familiar: the epic sermons, that ‘Sunday best’ outfit and the uplifting cacophony of hymn music. The film’s opening shot of a Black Jesus confirms many long-held beliefs how Western society mythologised the image of Jesus Christ as a white man with blue eyes and brown hair. And the rise of the mega-churches symbolises the connection as a purpose-built place of worship. But on the other hand, there’s no escape from the darker side of church life. Ask any Black person, we will have stories lasting for years that sum up the hypocritical behaviours and abuse of power (including my personal favourite, taking money from the congregation to fund the Pastor’s high-maintenance lifestyle).
What echoes throughout Ebo’s film is a well-known dichotomy where beneath the bravado and performance lie the complicated emotions felt by communities when contradictions, hypocrisies and scandals put it at odds with their faith. Honk for Jesus is no different, sharing the same pulpit as The Eyes of Tammy Faye. At the peak of their wealth and indulgence, the Childs’ church empire comes crumbling down amid a public scandal.
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Produced by Ebo’s sister Adanne and Oscar-nominated actor Daniel Kaluuya, Adamma Ebo adopts this mammoth undertaking as part mockumentary, part dramatic critique. Think The Office or Parks and Rec, where the ‘pinch to zoom’ close-ups and ‘piece to camera’ storytelling (where that one thing they say on camera challenges what happens in reality) functions as an adopted stylistic tone for revealing insights into the Childs’s lifestyle and expenditure. Ebo has fun playing around with the cinematic canvas, regularly shifting aspect ratios to suit the stage of the characterisation and progression of the plot.
It’s felt in how the couple navigates their comeback. Their plans heavily disrupted by their non-existent congregation (who have moved onto pastures new), and the announcement of their rivals – Keon (Conphidance) and Shakura (Nicole Beharie) Sumpter – planned opening of their new church on the same day as the Childs’ extravagant return. Trying to stay ahead of the game, the Childs are prepared to do whatever it takes to make the dream reality.
However, the comedic and dramatic styles frequently clash against each other. The script never feels entirely consistent or comfortable with handling the longer format of its concept. And consequently, the material and momentum is stretched beyond its means to meet its introspective demands. The Sumpters, for instance, are given fleeting moments to dial up the pressure as serious, antagonistic foes to the Childs. But the shifting tonal perspective feels deliberate – because at some point, the satire stops being funny once the weight and gravity of the scandal starts to hit closer to home.
Regina Hall is incredible as the film’s MVP. If Sterling K. Brown’s Curtis is blinded by ego (or as he calls it, “edging God out”) with his adamant proclamations of “saving souls”, then Hall’s character is equally potent, compelling, and powerful. She shows the emotional tolls of his action, to which her comedic style and facial reactions carry so many layers of nuanced discourse.
At her lowest ebb, Trinitie hurtles towards a relationship crossroads with Curtis. Having sought solace and guidance from her mother, Trinitie’s cries for help are casually tossed aside by her mother’s insistence on prayer. It’s a feeling all too prevalent within the Black community – problems easily reduced to asking for God’s help without resolving the problem’s root cause. Her defiant claims displayed earlier of, “you have to be strong as the First Lady”, feel astoundingly empty when the helplessness Trinitie exudes is nothing but painful yet truthful.
As the active face of the community, Hall’s Trinitie does the emotional heavy lifting, to the point where the wrath and snide commentary are pushed to demeaning levels. The breaking point – forced to put on mime artist make-up to “shake it for the lord” for roadside car honks from passers-by.
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Fundamentally, it asks valid questions about how much faith should we place in our leaders. Are they worth the pedestal from which they proclaim to preach from? Is forgiveness at all possible when a myriad of excuses is prevalent? Curtis is human, someone trying to correct his past discretions. But the lack of accountability is telling. Brown – brilliant as always – embodies the complex heart and soul of a character who wants redemption but refuses to acknowledge his faults and thrives off the adulation of his believers. You don’t have to be Columbo to guess the nature of the scandal. His anti-gay rhetoric juxaposes his lack of sexual desire for his wife. And the constant justification to hide his misdemeanours is to throw any excessive idea against the wall in the hope it reclaims the ‘good times’. But as the Ebo sisters note in their script, Blackness is not a monolith, and every desperate attempt Curtis holds himself to is devoid of reality and acceptance.
Hall and Brown make an outstanding pairing, riffing through the dramatic trials and tribulations of the couple while finding the comedic balance to show their characters in their best or raw forms. Their best moment comes in a synchronised rap of ‘Knuck if you Buck’ by Crime Mob, knowing every hardcore word of the song which further aligns with the film’s thematic investigation.
Ebo’s film may be uneven in places, but there’s enough intentions and performance depth to feel worthy of the praise.