The latest film about the Black church is the mockumentary comedy Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. It’s by no means the best; The Fighting Temptations was certainly funnier, while Red Hook Summer was better on the place of religion in Black community. Yet this film arrives at a time, doesn’t it? Maybe this isn’t the world-shattering satire it means to be, but one thing’s for sure: Tyler Perry isn’t making this comedy.
The story centers on Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church, an Atlanta megachurch that has been shut down for the past nine years after a sex scandal felled Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). Now he and his loyal wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) have invited a documentary film crew into their lives during the month leading up to Easter Sunday, when they plan a grand reopening. Their church once had 25,000 members and hosted the governor and the mayor. They are now down to five members, and they’re looking for anything to drum up fanfare.
The Childses spend much of the initial going talking around the reasons for their downfall, and just as we’re wondering what was the exact nature of the sex scandal, old footage surfaces of Lee-Curtis in his pomp railing against “the homosexual agenda.” Oh yeah, that’s where we’re going. The movie takes pains to note that the male persons he was involved with were overage, if just barely. (Well, that’s better than some Baptist clergymen can say.) This bit snaps the film into some badly needed focus, because the comedy that precedes that isn’t funny enough to sustain the movie. First-time filmmaker Adamma Ebo has put a solid premise into place, but as good as Brown and Hall are, they don’t have the instincts to pull off something like this. The movie would have been better off with comedians (Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, maybe?) in the lead.
The mockumentary device doesn’t always work, either. You wonder why the pastor and his wife would consent to having cameras in their bedroom while they’re having sex. The documentarian (whom we don’t see, but is voiced by Anita Laing) doesn’t push hard enough on her subjects, and Lee-Curtis flirts with the crew’s sound technician so shamelessly on-camera that it comes off wrong — surely if the man’s that far gone, we’d see more manifestations of that. We don’t need yet another comedy telling us how passive-aggressive Southerners can be, either.
However, the device does lead to one great moment during the climax. Just as the focus on the Childses make us wonder why we’re not getting the story of the men who brought down the pastor, one of Lee-Curtis’ victims (Austin Crute) — the one who refused to settle out of court — confronts him on the sidewalk outside the church about the damage he did to a teenager who needed guidance. This is just the latest in a string of humiliations inflicted by Lee-Curtis on Trin, who is wearing whiteface and acting as a street-corner mime to promote WTGP. There are further still to come even after Trin swears to stand by her man because Jesus tells her to, and because she has too much invested in being the pastor’s wife and the status that brings. (What she doesn’t mention is liking the chance to buy $2,000 church hats, but that’s a thing, too.)
What is this movie saying? That being a good Christian woman means being a glutton for punishment? That’s undoubtedly true in some cases, but it seems somewhat reductive as a blanket statement. Let’s split the difference and say that being married to a narcissistic sexual predator who’s in denial because he thinks he’s God’s chosen instrument means being a glutton for punishment. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. comes up with one indelible image at the very end, as Lee-Curtis steps out to greet his parishioners on the big Sunday and rubs his hands with glee over the prospect of a comeback, even as the church parking lot is empty besides one dude using the lot to do doughnuts in his Mustang. The camera zooms in on Trin’s masklike face as her husband ignores her. It should be the last straw, but somehow I think it won’t be.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
Starring Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall. Written and directed by Adamma Ebo. Rated PG-13.