Among secular people, it’s almost universally accepted that megachurch pastors are, frankly, phony grifters. They may well believe in the gospel that they preach, but it’s often not being preached out of a genuine devotion to that gospel. As seen in Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul., many megachurch pastors find themselves in a position of extreme wealth, with multiple sports cars, clothes from the most high-end designers, and golden thrones on the stage at church. And this pastor, Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), obviously has much more interest in earthly treasures than those of heaven.
Honk for Jesus is being dubbed a satire by lots of people, but I don’t really see it that way. Not much about the characters or settings is made to be over the top — it wouldn’t surprise me to see actual megachurch pastors acting like this in real life. Lee-Curtis and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) are completely image-obsessed. How they come across not just in public, but in private as well, is of utmost importance to them. The film employs a mostly traditional mockumentary style, which sees the characters talking to the filmmakers and looking at the camera. But in a flash of ingenuity, writer-director Adamma Ebo often changes the aspect ratio to indicate a shift in perspective to that of a typical fictional film. This unique style choice effectively lets us see what the main characters are like when their façades have been removed.
The reason Lee-Curtis hired the documentary crew in the first place is to help rehabilitate his image, after getting, let’s say, a little too close with some of the young men at his church (another characteristic that’s all too familiar with this type of person). The church has been closed down for weeks in wake of the scandal, and he and Trinitie plan to reopen on Easter Sunday. Only problem is, with the Childs’ church out of business, husband and wife pastor duo, Keon (Conphidance) and Shakura Sumpter (Nicole Beharie), are planning to expand their church to add a second campus. And the day they’re planning to open… Easter Sunday. Much like the Childs, the Sumpters are outwardly Christian, speak fluent Christianese, and help out in the community. But thanks to the way the film depicts them, they’re right on track to follow in the Childs’ footsteps in terms of taking advantage of a congregation. This couple is a good parallel to the Childs, and they show the neverending cycle of abuse of power and corruption within the church setting.
It’s the characterization and mix of filmmaking techniques that really drive the film’s message home. A typical mockumentary would be good for a satire, and a straightforward narrative film could be a scathing teardown of pastors, but the imx of the two forces you to question the truth and honesty of every moment. At first, the traditional style is rare, but it becomes more frequent as the film goes on — in fact, it goes so far that the film with alternate perspectives within a scene. It forces you to ask when these people are being their true selves. Or to take it a step further, if they even know who their own true selves are anymore. I don’t think the characters even know. To see those who claim to be arbiters on truth have such a loose grasp on it creates a juicy layer of irony. But then thinking about how it’s all in service of a spurious mission to save souls is truly infuriating.
The Childs are so steeped in their con that amid horrendous allegations, Trinitie can’t bring herself to leave her husband, and it doesn’t seem to be out of moral or religious obligation. She plays the victim in front of Lee-Curtis, in front of the camera, in front of her mother, and even to herself… yet Lee-Curtis does the same. They’re only out for themselves, and in a Succession-esque way, each move they make seems calculated. Brown and Hall are phenomenal in these roles, and it’s not a stretch to say these are two of the very best performances of the year. They’re each an inch from exploding throughout the entire film, and the actors expertly play their characters on the complete edge the entire time. Brown has a natural intensity to him, and seeing his character continuously fight it off (except for when he simply can’t) is a sight to behold. And Hall probably gives the better performance of the two, simply because she has a couple of extra layers to her character. I hope they both stay in the conversation until the Oscars in March.
There’s a scene towards the end of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. in which the titular honking finally comes into play. To see just why the film is named that ties together every thread it’s been pulling at, and puts a narrative and thematic bow on the whole thing. This film is worth watching for the two lead performances alone, and the comedy and pathos they weave in effortlessly. But what will make it stick with you is the surprisingly layered and nuanced look at a topic that is traditionally low-hanging fruit. It might not save your soul, but it’s worth honking for this movie.