Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul Is Divisive — That’s The Point

Photo: Courtesy of Peacock.
Since the beginning of time, organized religion has played a fundamental role in most, if not all, societies. From a top-down level, many cultures have propped up faith and the communal expression of it as a pillar of their social structure — and to mixed results. In the new film Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, a project from Daniel Kaluuya’s production company 59%, the nuances of Black church culture are put under a microscope, following the spirited efforts of a pair of Black pastors to redeem their good standing after falling from grace. A group Zoom interview with stars Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, and filmmaking duo Adamma and Adanne Ebo highlighted the radical intention of the story. Though the narrative is told through a comedic lens, the subject at hand is no laughing matter: the church might need saving from itself.  
“We’re trying to encourage people to ask questions of this specific institution, the institution of church and religion, but also of all larger institutions that we let govern our lives because we don't ask questions,” Adanne offers in the interview. “When there's no transparency, then that's how you get unchecked power. And that runs rampant in our culture today.”
Honk For Jesus, a creative partnership between the Nigerian-American filmmakers (and identical twins), introduces us to the whispers plaguing Pastor Lee Curtis Childs (a simultaneously smarmy yet charming Brown) and his devoted wife Trinitie (Hall in her best form), the leaders of the dwindling Atlanta megachurch Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. When we meet the First Couple of this house of God, there’s a hunger emanating from them. Not for the Word, but for restoration —  to status, to fame, and to glory. 
Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are planning a big comeback for themselves and for their church, anxious to regain their status after a scandal that knocked them off the pulpit. The controversy, which is never explicitly explained but is instead relayed in pieces through enthusiastic gossip throughout the city, hints that Lee-Curtis’ counseling of several young men in his community was less helpful than it was predatory; word on the street is that he befriended young men and showered them with gifts and a concerning level of affection because of a closeted same-sex attraction, an obvious no-no in the church. The pastor’s “mentorship” comes back to haunt him in the form of a multi-million dollar lawsuit alleging that he preyed on the young men seeking his guidance at church. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, of course, deny the allegations vehemently. (But they’re still coughing up the money for settlements — y’know, just to smooth things over.)
Lee-Curtis’ not-so-private efforts to reconcile his sexuality to his faith are exactly what drew Brown to the character after reading the script. “One of the primary things that attracted me to the role was an opportunity to challenge the church’s very specific views on anyone who is not cisgendered and heteronormative,” reveals Brown of his role as the tortured lead pastor. “I think that’s worthy of examination because your relationship with God is personal, and just because it doesn't look like everybody else thinks it should look, doesn't negate its existence.”
As a result of the shocking accusations, it’s been years since the couple has been able to fill up the pews of their sanctuary. To make sure that the news of Childs’ return to the church circuit makes a splash, they’ve teamed up with a talented documentarian who will capture the behind-the-scenes footage of their preparations. But what the cameras actually capture is a crumbling foundation being hastily rebuilt by a couple in crisis. Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are not divine beings but regular-degular humans, deeply flawed, calculated, and on the verge of a breakdown. Preaching the Gospel isn’t really their main objective right now. Saving souls is important or whatever, but first, they have to get back on the map. 

When there's no transparency, then that's how you get unchecked power. And that runs rampant in our [churches] today.

adanne ebo
Watching Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, I felt a sense of disquiet wash over me scene by scene — not because the film wasn’t good, but because as someone born and raised in the church, it was real. Too real. Jesus Himself may have been poor, but the business of Jesus is a very lucrative one, and I’ve come across many pastors more focused on increasing their platform (and lining their pockets) than spreading God’s Word. To make things even more troubling, just like in the movie, the morals of these real life clergy are just as questionable. Rampant sexual abuse. Poorly hidden tax fraud. Repeated infidelity. Exploitation of parishioners. There's no shortage of horror stories about pastors preaching heaven while living like hell behind closed doors. 
Those contradictions, and the way that they’ve become normalized within church culture, are exactly what the Ebo sisters are trying to speak to with their film. The project is meant to pull back the curtain of church hypocrisy, forcing congregations of past and present to wrestle with the darkness that often corrupts what should be one of our safest spaces. 
“I've always been the one who's been like, Oh, y'all going to church this Halloween? I will be dressing up and going to get candy,” Adamma tells Unbothered. “I've always been sort of one foot in, one foot out when I felt like church wasn't resonating with me or wasn't serving me well or bringing me joy and happiness. So I'm very accustomed to critiquing it.”
“I think it helps that all four of us had our own personal relationship with faith and the church, and are still sort of figuring things out,” adds Adanne. “Because of that, we were able to understand the full spectrum of this culture, and that helped the overall balance in the film’s tone.”
Honk For Jesus is a satirical story, and its dark comedy, mockumentary approach emphasizes the comically cringy double-mindedness of its protagonists (who are, ironically, also its antagonists). Through the behind-the-scenes vantage point of the Curtis' journey, we’re able to see the glaring discrepancy between who they’re pretending to be and who they really are, despite their best efforts, and the breaking of that fourth wall feels uncomfortable because it hits too close to home. It’s funny, but it's also not funny; one scene will have you cackling, doubled over in sheer delight, and the next, it’s more like a wait, did the Ebos go to my home church? nervous chuckle. (“Black folks in general balance comedy with the hardest stuff all the time,” Adanne reminds me. “It's our coping mechanism.”)
In the week since the film’s release, it's already drummed up a host of mixed reactions ranging from genuine delight to pearl-clutching indignation. Old school churchgoers across the country are tuning in to the film in theaters or streaming it on Peacock expecting a celebration of the Black church only to find the dirty little secrets of church culture being exposed for the world to see. Some dissatisfied viewers claim that Honk For Jesus is “making fun” of the church and of Christianity through its storytelling, but its message doesn’t intend to be a takedown of the faith by any means. Though the characters and their church are fictional, their desperation to maintain the status quo by any means necessary (even if it means playing into the same problematic cycle that traumatized them) and the ripple effects those attempts have on their congregation are informed by real church events and real church people. The Ebos and their talented cast didn’t have to search too far for inspiration; cautionary tales of pastors failing to separate their vastly contradictory double lives can pretty much be found everywhere. (Honk For Jesus is rumored to be a fictionalized take on the controversial life of the late Bishop Eddie Long.)
For Hall, bringing Trinitie Childs to life wasn’t challenging because she, too, grew up in the church. To prepare for the role of the tightly wound co-captain of Wander to Greater Paths, the leading lady tells Unbothered that she personally reached out to several church First Ladies  — no, she’s not naming any names — and those candid conversations shed light on the daily pressures of supporting their husbands and keeping the church afloat, even to their own downfall. 
“You know what our culture says about us as Black women needing to be ‘ride or die’,” says Hall. “When you add in the gravity of the covenant of marriage before God and before the community, before the congregation, you really feel the weight of that conflict. I wanted to show the full humanity of this woman who is so invested in these institutions that have been around a long time that everyone loves but could stand, in certain areas, for evolution to occur.”
Her co-star Brown did a bit of research on his own, finding inspiration for his character Lee-Curtis in the messy tension that exists between what sociologist Erving Goffman would describe as our “front stage” and “backstage” behaviors — or the characters we play in front of people and who we are when we think we’re all alone. On the pulpit, Lee-Curtis is a handsome (I know y’all saw that shirtless scene), charismatic, and obscenely rich pastor who has been hand-selected by God Himself to share the Gospel. When he’s not standing in front of his congregation, however, we see a man who is struggling to come to terms with his identity and harming others in the process. 

We set out to make people uncomfortable with this film. And it's like our grandmother always said: hit dogs will holler.

adamma ebo
“I have family members who are LGBTQIA and have a deep affinity for God and wanted to have what they would term a ‘regular’ life,” Brown says. “And I’ve seen them, as individuals and as a collective, sort of twist themselves to fit into a square peg, even though they're sort of rectangular. That was painful for me as someone who just loved an individual, regardless of how they identified, and knowing that light lives inside of them. But because things had to look a very particular way in order to be accepted by everyone else in this space, they’re having to dim that light or try to force it into a space that it was never really intended to be.”
Church people, myself included, can be quite touchy about any criticism of their faith, so the Ebo sisters and their stars already know that Honk For Jesus won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, they’re expecting it to shake the table and to spark heated conversations as more people tune in. Throughout the centuries that organized religion has existed all over the world, we haven’t gotten anywhere by covering up scandals in the church, shaming victims, and pretending like modern day Christianity is exactly as God intended it to be. Starting an honest, nuanced discourse about the toxic aspects of church culture and the way that it has spawned trauma in many people’s lives is the first step to healing — one step closer to creating the heaven on earth that we deserve. All they’re asking is for people to have a willingness to see where and how the church can evolve. So if you’re mad about the movie…well, you’re just going to have to stay mad. The cast and crew of Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul said what they said. 
Photo: Courtesy of Peacock.
“At the premiere, somebody came up to me and said, ‘You know, you're probably going to lose a lot of fans. But you'll probably gain a lot of fans, too. And the ones that you lose, you probably didn't want them to begin with’,” recalls Brown.
“Exactly. I mean, we set out to make people uncomfortable with this film,” nods Adamma. “And it's like our grandmother always said: hit dogs will holler.”
Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul is now available in select theaters and streaming on Peacock.

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