Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
is a film about how religion can leave you feeling physically and metaphysically empty—an empty marriage, a vacant church, an awkward conversation full of things unsaid. It follows megachurch pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and first lady Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) hoping to resurrect their house of worship on Easter Sunday following a scandal that tarnishes the pastor’s name. Despite the mockumentary style, the principles avoid making the scandal explicit to their documentarians, but the camera and script eventually make it explicit to us. The pastor cheated on his wife with young (adult) men while preaching that homosexuality is an abomination. Uneven execution notwithstanding, the technical aspects of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. are shaped around getting us and the characters to wrestle with the hollow center of this form of Southern Baptist evangelism: The moral and emotional vacancy is duplicated by empty congregation rooms, a lack of score or much diegetic music, and characters staring at or past the camera (or one another) with nothing to say.
In repeated cuts to fictional archival footage, Lee-Curtis’ discussion of his Bugatti, clothes and accessories is reminiscent of a Ric Flair promo. It is made apparent early on that Trinitie stays with him because she enjoys the status and wealth of her position. The prominent throne, the fancy church crowns. She smiles excitedly as a large audience cheers on Lee-Curtis’ prosperity gospel, his condemnation of envy and of sexual deviance.
In the aftermath of his scandal, though, Lee-Curtis’ congregation of tens of thousands is reduced to five people that, to him, don’t even count. His church is a quiet place, lightly echoing as the parishioners fail to fill space. The most memorable, and Lee-Curtis’ favorite, is Aria Devaughn (Selah Kimbro Jones), a young girl who excitedly channels the Holy Spirit and speaks in tongues. Her mother Sapphire (Crystal Alicia Garrett) brings her to the church as a way of keeping her occupied rather than out of any deep internal devotion. When the film cuts away from her performance to a one-on-one with the documentary camera, Aria says “I love the theater.” Lee-Curtis’ self-inflated sense of righteous connection to God is supported by a little girl playing a game at his expense.
A rival megachurch was born from the downfall of Lee-Curtis Childs, led by his former congregants, the Sumpters (Nicole Beharie and Conphidance). It is a place brimming with life, though an uncomfortable conversation between the Childs and Sumpters relies on both the aggressive false positivity that churches across America have become known for and the awkward silence that becomes the movie’s signature.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is carried almost entirely by Hall’s performance as Trinitie, much of which is in the delivery of a script that requires awkward pauses in conversation where you expect to hear crickets chirp or see a mouse run by, where you could almost literally cut the tension like fog in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The diegetic explanation for the documentary is that Trinitie thought it would help drum up support and good press as they try to reopen the church. She frequently delivers wide fake smiles, shrouded explanations and appeals for editorial control over the documentary—asking for things to be cut or scenes to be re-shot.
Trinitie is frequently tense and lonely, with no companionship except for the broken relationship with her husband. She is never able to let her walls down and trust anyone; when she meets with a former congregant, they speak in coded language, in a nice-but-unkind enthusiastically passive-aggressive fashion that would be apparent to any observer—underlined by the woman walking away mid-sentence. Lee-Curtis, meanwhile, is a fool, a liar and a man who took advantage of his position to seduce young men that came to him for guidance. Trinitie’s mother implores her that she has a religious duty to stay with him while Trinitie considers that she might be happier without him. It’s all in the silences. The straight-at-camera stares we’ve all gotten familiar with from over a decade of mockumentary comedy television appear without any smarm; just grimaces loaded with annoyance. The scenes with Trinitie’s mother are among those that shift out of the doc look in favor of a more standard narrative perspective. Trinitie’s mother encourages her in her marriage by telling a story about needing to pray for patience with Trinitie’s late father. Trinitie asks when her mother had to stop asking for such grace. Her mother says that it continued until the man passed; she says this without any resentment, just the lightly humorous air of this being the way men are, but the words of encouragement are cold comfort. The silence returns, as the camera asks us to sit with her and her predicament before Lee-Curtis boisterously returns.
The real soul of Lee-Curtis’ character exists partly in his gaudiness, his air of divine self-importance, and partly in implication. He’s a hollow person that’s obsessed with appearing flashy and using his great wealth and status to take advantage of young men that he’s now paying to keep quiet. He tries to seduce one of the documentary’s sound guys with his alleged entertainment industry connections. When, at the climax of the film, he comes face to face with one of the men he took advantage of, he is briefly confident and dismissive before becoming startled and sad—if not remorseful for his actions, regretful for what he has become, or what people can see. His prospective sermon for their grand reopening is vague about what he did, something Trinitie calls him out on, and it’s the realest he knows how to be—deflecting throughout his quasi-apology, and, as throughout the film, claiming it’s the devil and other people plotting his downfall.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.’s biggest failure might have been in advertising. It’s hardly the first film or TV show to talk about hypocrisy among the church, comically or otherwise. From Saved! to Spotlight to Righteous Gemstones, the place of churches and the moral failings of its institutions have a decent record of entertaining in the United States. But trailers for this particular satire sold it as an outrageous comedy while its actual presentation, despite a few absurd moments like Hall and Brown rapping along to “Knuck if You Buck” in their car, is less laugh-out-loud and more pensive. Undoubtedly there are jokes that fall flat, but unintended silences mesh with the intended ones. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. isn’t a romp; it’s a film about loneliness, fear and entitlement. It leaves lots of air for the audience to fill with interpretation, to think about the implications of the lives they’ve led, and ends with its characters in the same bad position, but closer to having to come to terms with the situation. The congregation is no closer to being rebuilt, but the Childs have been confronted by their empty relationships and their empty lives.
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.