The hypocrisy of megachurches and the teachings of their “prosperity gospel” opens them up to, and practically demands, criticism, and satirization. It’s a bitterly American phenomenon operating at a crossroads between religious fervor and celebrity worship, to suggest that allegiance to the right pastor will yield their parishioners the same kinds of earthly rewards that they proudly flaunt. Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. is certainly not the first film to mine these depths for comedic value and social commentary, but it does uniquely hinge on examining the self-delusion of people compelled—perhaps divinely inspired—to lead such a congregation, which writer-director Adamma Ebo captures with a skillful combination of tragedy and absurdity.
In the wake of a sex scandal that knocked them from the top of their community, Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his supportive first lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) prepare for the grand reopening of their Southern Baptist megachurch, Wander the Greater Paths. In hopes of bolstering their public profile, they invite a documentary crew to follow them in the weeks preceding the Easter Sunday they’ve picked for their glorious resurrection. But it turns out that the fly-on-the-wall documentary crew isn’t interested in acting as the Childs’ PR team, and their footage captures the emotional turmoil the power couple tries to hide with their pr offensive.
Ebo doesn’t restrain her film to mockumentary observation, adopting a more cinematic aspect ratio for scenes and shots that fall outside the faux-observational conceit, but the decision to not be restrained by one style of cinematography acts as something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows for a clear distinction between Lee-Curtis and Trinitie’s private personas and what they intentionally present to the camera, but that dual reality does also occasionally undercut the central performances. For instance, Trinitie’s comically unconvincing attempts to mask her frustrations with her husband and congregation don’t entirely freeze with a character whose life feels calculated to present a specific face to the world. That juxtaposition of attitudes is at least some of the point, but the privately cinematic sequences can feel more like a presentational Get Out Of Jail Free card than an effective storytelling choice.
Thankfully, the two central performances are so stellar that it’s easy to forgive this shaky consistency. Sterling K. Brown embodies Lee-Curtis as the vision of self-delusion, entirely believing that his piety is what brought him wealth and adulation. His sexual scandal underscores the deep-rooted hypocrisy of conservative figureheads, but Brown’s performance particularly grasps how power and a self-serving ideology act forms a protective cocoon—and a coping mechanism—for the need for love, much less unexamined self-hatred. Lee-Curtis is a performer because he needs the adoration and respect of his community, and he preaches the forgiveness of Christ, not just because he is a true believer in the warped values of his church, but because it allows him to continue his sins with the expectation that people will still follow him.
Yet, as compelling as Brown is in his own right, Regina Hall is the backbone of the film. Trinity is the brains behind her unwitting husband’s success, but for all her calculating attempts to advocate for her husband’s fame and glory, she too is a true believer in the gospels she preaches. What makes her character so tragic is that she is forever doomed to be a supporting player by the structures of her community—to be trapped in a marriage providing material benefits rather than spiritual or emotional ones, though neither Trinitie nor Lee-Curtis is able to see the distinction. Hall brilliantly delivers the deadpan emotional switch between shock at her husband’s idiocy and the smiling passive aggression of a supportive wife, portraying a woman pitiably constrained by a faith that uses God as solace for her isolating existence. This culminates in an emotional breakdown that is a crowning jewel of Hall’s acting career, stripping away farce in favor of raw, confused emotion that feels especially honest in from of a documentary crew’s camera.
Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. may not always be effective as an example or deconstruction of mockumentaries, but it incisively captures the realities of evangelical life and its addictive capacity to encourage fame and material comfort above all other values. At its most powerful, Adamma Ebo’s film is an empathetic indictment of a culture that has evolved—and perhaps mutated—from intercommunity support toward the asphyxiating glorification of gaudy figureheads. It not only understands that honking for Jesus might be a sham, but that a chorus of car horns is the closest these religious leaders can come to offering true salvation—including for themselves.