HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL. is a deadly satire that exhibits a Christian compassion not always evident in its protagonists. Not that those protagonists have the self-awareness to register their lack of same. This satire finds much to mock when it comes to mega-churches and the gospel of prosperity, but it chooses to use the human failings of super-rich preachers (and wannabees) as a way to look at the levels of self-delusion involved when forgetting what the Bible says about obstacles the rich have in getting into heaven.
Our protagonists are Trinite and Lee-Curtis Childs (Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown), who came from nothing and are now reeling from the scandal that has closed their mega-church, but still putting on their trademark mega-watt smiles as they plot their comeback. “Showtime” is what Lee-Curtis is fond of saying before facing an audience, and that is their divine mantra. The sex scandal that brought them down, as Pastor Lee-Curtis affirms, was not criminal, after all, and Trinitie is sticking by her adulterous spouse after an aborted divorce filing. No word of love, though, for her husband as she explains how she longs to be the First Lady of Wander to Better Paths Church once again, sitting beside Lee-Curtis on matching golden thrones before their massive Atlanta congregation. This is a business partnership, formerly very lucrative, but still a solid one, at least for now.
A tour of the now deserted mega-church complex reveals the usual excesses we’ve come to expect from celebrity preachers. There’s the massive auditorium where laser light shows and Lee-Curtis’ verbal pyrotechnics dazzled the congregation into salvation, a creative arts center where ribbon-dancing and mime were taught, and, of course, the massive walk-in closet where the Lee-Curtis and Trinitie store part of their extensive collection of designer clothing. Trinite, flirting with the documentary cameras brought in as part of their comeback scheme, confides that a pastor in Prada gives her chills.
They have all the right catchphrases about saving souls, and in better times knew how to play to the media as community pillars, but the spiritual hollowness at the core of their marriage and of their beliefs reveal themselves despite their best efforts in front of those cameras. More, it reveals the depths of their self-delusion. They are like children in their innocent belief that a Bugatti is fair recompense for ministering to a congregation, and a hat with a $2K price tag perfectly appropriate, especially when it mixes sexy and holy with his crystals and spider-web silk.
In contrast, there are Keon and Shakira Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie), the co-pastors of the far more modest church, Heaven’s House. They are a couple also spouting the right catchphrases of Christian love for their fallen colleagues even as they can barely contain their glee as how quickly their own church is growing now that they are attracting the people leaving Better Paths in droves.
There a distinct ruthlessness in the way writer/director Adamma Ebo has the Childs’ confronted with their hypocrisy, and yet the shock of recognition that Hall and Brown register does not allow us any cheap gloating. Rather, we are invited to empathize with the pain caused when their failings and a lifetime’s folly are made manifest to them. At one point, in preparation for the big comeback service, Lee-Curtis practices the make-or-break sermon for Trinitie, but Brown gives the smooth delivery, the practiced passion of oratory, a subtle sincerity in sharp contrast to Lee-Curtis’ usual showmanship. There is a chastened quality of someone truly humbled who is unaccustomed to that feeling. Hall, flickering through the carefully cultivated façade of irrepressible good cheer and the seething anger beneath that comes from a marriage built on so many false fronts, has such vulnerability in the frozen smile and edge to the reflexive words of blessing that no further exposition is necessary. Still, the scene with Trinitie’s mother explaining her own marriage does a fine job of explaining how childhood programming causes such a smart, fearless woman can continue to make such bad choices.
HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL. finds its greatest compassion for the faithful who stick by the Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. To be sure, humor is mined as, for example, they look on non-plussed as Lee-Curtis strips his designer duds from his ripped body before plunging into the baptismal font for a refreshed salvation, but the longing for meaning and belonging that has brought them to a place of show business rather than true spirituality tempers the absurdity with a stab of poignance. The issues being examined are greater than the individuals depicted. Instead, we are asked to ponder the state of organized religion in these United States as a whole, and as funny as HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL. is, that proposition is one to give the most righteous heart pause.