This is the type of satire served up the way I love my coffee: pitch black and richly bitter. There’s no pussy-footing around what a film like this is trying to say. It doesn’t tantalize its central characters with questionable laughs the same way one would probe into the religious satire of The Righteous Gemstones. It becomes very clear that this ridiculous path is only going to lead to despair. And what a path it is, decked out with garish hypocrisies of American Christianity.
This pseudo-mockumentary format follows the events after a megachurch has its lead pastor accused of sexual misconduct with multiple teenagers. Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) is hoping to recover after this situation by reopening his church, aiming for more than his five regulars to attend. By his side is Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), a devoted wife who smiles right along with all his plans. They both grin and show off their decadent attire and architecture for the cameras.
When the cameras are not on, however, is when we see the real Trinitie. She’s a woman so desperate to please that it hurts. You can see the fear and unease coursing through her eyes when not performing her act for an audience. Despite being bothered by the allegations, there is little she feels she can do. What other route is there for her to take? She’s trapped in a marriage that demands her obedience.
This is a film that has a better sense of empathy for those who are conned the most by religious grifters. It’s a picture that can laugh at how absurdly dressed up these two figures can be with how they approach services, complete with an elaborate baptism pool and the most garish of outfits. But it can also showcase real darkness to the whole ordeal, where it is easy enough to spend more time sympathizing with Trinitie rather than root for her downfall. The whole film has this tension where the desire is that Trinitie will escape this sinking ship of a congregation, especially when Lee-Curtis dresses her up as a literal clown to promote his church.
There are nice touches of dry comedy laced in the mockumentary format. The subtitles are perfectly timed to reveal when there’s a former congregant speaking or when a prison inmate is voicing support. The background noise of the news and radio call-in shows reveal the hypocrisy of such a church, where archival footage reveals homophobic sermons and callers voice their polarizing views on a black pastor being caught in the act. There are also the perfect rivals for the Childs in the form of Shakura (Nicole Beharie) and Keon Sumpter (Conphidance), another couple running their own church. They take over the community that left the Childs and have an amazing manner of passive-aggressiveness to counter the corrupt megachurch.
A lot of credit needs to be given to Hall for her remarkable performances. She’s able to put on the look of a woman who loves the life of a rich pastor’s woman yet still feels awkward in her situation. It’s a while double-act that she pulls off with grace. The same can be said for Brown, putting on an ecstatic show but also still being tempted by his own homosexuality. This is present enough with his stressing about how he didn’t consider the boys he molested to be boys since they were teenagers but this aspect is hammered home more overtly in his weaker moments, as when he seduces a sound man.
Director Adamma Ebo makes a stunning debut with this film, finding just the right moments of satirical jabs and piercing drama. The switching between aspect ratios for the mockumentary and behind-the-scenes segments is a nice touch, although the breaking becomes easily readable with the anxiety-inducing soundtrack whenever Trinitie’s depressing realization slips onto her face. Ebo’s satire is also perfectly on point. The film is bookended by tragedy and corruption so that you can laugh for a time but ultimately come to the realization that this is a horrible situation where guilty people walk free amid hypocrisy. The film also doesn’t give an easy solution where comeuppance is handed on a silver platter.
Honk For Jesus Save Your Soul is not an easy watch at times, especially for the ambiguous ending that is sure to displease those who really hope that religious grifters get what they deserve. It’s an unconventional dark comedy to this degree and I’d expect nothing less out of Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions. Compared to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, which took a far more tepid approach to laugh religious zealotry in the modern age, this is a far more pointed and palpable picture, touching on something much deeper than just a church conning people out of their money in the same of the prosperity gospel.