“Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul” is a movie about a lot of the worst parts of Christianity: hypocrisy, prosperity gospel, abuse, misplaced loyalty and celebrity church culture. Most importantly, it’s about the expectation placed on Christian women to submit to people who actively hurt them and bear the full weight of the wrongs of others.
The feature film follows megachurch pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his First Lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they walk through a “difficult season” — made difficult by the sex abuse allegations a handful of young men have brought against Lee-Curtis.
After the allegations were made public, the church lost its entire congregation and shut down. The movie begins in the time leading up to the church’s reopening as the couple competes with another megachurch — led by a young and charismatic couple — to regain congregation members. Ultimately, the Childses are required to panhandle on the sidewalk outside the church with a “Honk for Jesus” sign and a Black Jesus statue that weeps sparkling tears.
“Honk for Jesus” was adapted from director Adamma Ebo’s short film of the same premise, and it essentially serves as an expansion on the themes and scenes of the original short.
The movie is primarily a mockumentary, told by a documentary crew that follows Lee-Curtis and Trinitie and speaks to other community members. However, a significant portion is also just a traditional film, revealing more intimate moments to the audience than a documentary crew could capture.
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These private moments feel crucial to understanding the emotional depth of the characters and accurately tackling a large quantity of heavy religious topics.
In one, Trinitie initiates sex with Lee-Curtis, only to have him express a total lack of interest if he has to look at her face — and make her serve him with no reciprocation at the end of the encounter.
The lack of physical intimacy and her unrewarded service even in their most private moments speak on all levels to their strained relationship with each other and their church. It’s also poignant when the next scene returns to the mockumentary, presenting old footage of a sermon in which Lee-Curtis exalts his marriage and condemns homosexuality.
The mockumentary genre allows for deadpan, surreal humor to shine, and “Honk for Jesus” has plenty of that. A traditional film allows for more excruciating moments of failed intimacy and hypocrisy, and it doesn’t require the audience to piece together a narrative through moments captured exclusively by a camera crew. Both work for what the movie is trying to achieve, but not at the same time. Though it’s aiming to do the opposite, the format at times makes the movie feel like it’s missing something important.
“Honk for Jesus” is funny — and it’s one of the best things about it. It’s always a delight to see this kind of tongue-in-cheek humor about horrible Christians executed well on screen.
But ultimately, it’s difficult for the movie to stray from its painful drama about two people who have been hurt by church structures and a woman who is being forced to take responsibility for all of it.
After a sleepless night, Trinitie asks her mom to meet for lunch and tells her through tears she doesn’t think her marriage to Lee-Curtis is going to make it. Her tears say it all: He’s been unfaithful, he’s made her responsible for the future success of the church, he’s hurt her, and he likely doesn’t even love her.
“Are you a Christian?” is what her mom asks in response.
When Trinitie says she is, her mom tells her, “That’s good, ‘cause it didn’t sound like it for a moment.”
She then says that everything Trinitie has is because of “that man and your God” and that she just has to turn to the Bible and pray away all of the negative feelings she has about her husband. It’s a final straw of sorts, proving that in her world everything is Trinitie’s fault — down to feeling hurt when people hurt her.
I do feel sympathy for Lee-Curtis, too. He’s been trapped by harsh guidelines for masculinity and hardly has a sense of self because he’s either repressed it or reshaped it into something that fits his persona as a celebrity pastor. With his church and congregation gone, he has nothing left.
Still, he uses his wealth and power to groom young men in his congregation; he says he’s made himself right with God, but he’s more concerned with the restoration of his status than he is righting his wrongs. His actions are inexcusable, and at every turn he forces Trinitie to take responsibility for his grave sins.
Everything comes to a head the day before the grand reopening when, after hours of panhandling, Lee-Curtis decides they aren’t getting enough honks. He tells Trinitie it’s time for her to become a “praise mime,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
It would completely humiliate Trinitie; she initially resists.
“Are you really gonna be the barrier that keeps me from saving souls?” he demands.
So she submits.
If that wasn’t humiliating enough, a victim of Lee-Curtis’ abuse soon stops traffic to confront the couple. It takes place in front of all the cameras, effectively ruining all chance they have of a public redemption.
In an eruption of righteous anger, Trinitie proclaims all she’s done and all she’s sacrificed for the church.
The documentarian asks, “Then why don’t you just leave?”
It comes as no surprise that she doesn’t have a good answer.
And her tears ruin her perfectly painted black and white mime makeup.
Rated R for language and some sexual content, “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” is available to stream on Peacock.
This article originally appeared at Religion Unplugged.
Jillian Cheney is a contributing culture writer for Religion Unplugged who also writes on American Protestantism and evangelical Christianity. You can find her on Twitter @_jilliancheney.