Many critics are lumping Adamma Ebo’s “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.” into the comedy genre, and suggest the movie should have stuck to its lane in drawing laughs at the hypocrisy and thinly disguised greed on display with a certain kind of evangelical megachurch pastor who at best has his hands in your pocket and at worst isn’t looking only for money when he’s fishing around in there.
Yes, there are plenty of cringey laughs at the usual sendups of avaricious preachers in expensive suits and palatial homes pounding away at a “prosperity gospel” that reserves most all the prosperity for themselves.
But Ebo’s film debut, in conjunction with her twin sister Adanne as producer, is much more notable for its dark and tragic elements that underscore the dismal con job such ostensible conduits to the divine perpetrate not only on their flocks, but on themselves, too. The film was released to theaters and streaming on the Peacock platform on September 2.
Their colossal deceptiveness and salesmanship very much includes deceiving even themselves, building a case that exonerates the sins they finally acknowledge as merely ‘human’ and of course forgiven, while still convincing themselves they are doing the work of the Lord.
We watch the antics of Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs, a buffed, loquacious (it comes with the territory) and broadly grinning preacher man who has been brought low by a vaguely defined scandal that has emptied the pews of his former 25,000-member praise arena and we think, “How could any thinking person not see right through this all-too-obvious schtick and run for the nearest exits?”
After all, there is likely not an insincere person among all those ecstatic, swaying, clapping seekers lifting their arms and proclaiming “Praise Jesus!” in rhythm with the pastor’s every syllable. They are there for something that defines our very humanity: the search for meaning and connection and renewal in a community of beloveds.
Therein lies but one aspect of this tragedy: that they tell themselves they’re getting it from this bloviating scam artist writ large on stage, all puffed up from the adulation, who convinces himself he deserves every good thing the flock’s dollars can buy (cars, clothes, boats, pools, etc.).
And in Pastor Childs’ case, as in far too many others around the church firmament, his “take” does not stop with dollars, but also includes access—to his flock’s children, specifically their young men.
Sterling K. Brown, late of “This Is Us,” gives a riveting performance as Pastor Childs, supported more than ably (both in the acting and the story) by Regina Hall as his shrewd and vivacious wife Trinitie. They comprise a gorgeous, well-coiffed power couple who are not about to give up their empire as their “Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church” in Atlanta closes so the good pastor can sufficiently “repent” and the two can hatch a new scheme for a grand reopening/rebirth on, you guessed it, Easter Sunday.
But the tale veers from a simple fake redemption story in order for the con to resume because another, younger, just-as-beautiful couple, the Sumpters, former members of the Childs’ flock, have seized the opening to start their own church down the road.
On, it turns out, Easter as well. Cue the highway billboards—new soul savers have come to town.
Alarmed, Pastor Lee and “First Lady” Trinitie pay a visit to the upstart couple, ever so politely suggesting they refrain from matching the Easter Sunday gambit. The resulting scene of tightly repressed venom under a veneer of maximum politeness and faux Christian regard is violent to its core, all the more remarkable for how all four combatants seem to keep their blood pressure from inching up more than a notch.
Smooth as butter, is what that is—perhaps we should not be so surprised that such operators manage to fleece so many worshippers out of their life savings as successfully as they do.
The resulting cat-and-mouse game of the Childs moving their rebirth service up a week only to be matched by the Sumpters has strong comic elements, but again, the laughs are incidental, little eyerolls amidst the somber reality of so many lives so deeply invested in the continuance of a sham.
That includes the Childs themselves, keenly drawn portraits not only of avarice but also self-delusion. Do Pastor Lee and Trinitie truly understand the depths of their treachery and the ruined lives left in their wake? I don’t think so.
Their colossal deceptiveness and salesmanship very much includes deceiving even themselves as they build a case that exonerates the sins they finally acknowledge but dismiss as merely “human” and of course forgiven, while still convincing themselves they are doing the work of the Lord.
After all, how could those thousands of people who used to sway in the pews, drenched in the spirit, their hearts soaring to the heavens, possibly have been wrong about them? And aren’t the worshippers sinners, too, commanded by scripture to forgive the pastor’s lapse?
Critics emphasizing only the satire and chuckles to be had at the seemingly endless gullibility of certain religious seekers completely miss the dead earnestness of what the film shows is at stake. Lives are no joking affair when they are as rended as they are by such transgressions.
We see it in the starkest possible relief as one of the young men whom the pastor, in his highly repressed but leaky homosexuality has abused, accosts him on the sidewalk abutting their empty church. The Childs have landed there in all their sartorial splendor, waving signs at passing drivers in a last desperate attempt to gain their attention and attendance a couple of days hence.
The young man stares long and hard at the pastor, seeing right through him to the depths of his depravity, before a withering smirk and rage compete for expression on his face.
The moment cuts the pastor, his wife, and us as audience members to the quick, and we realize, if we hadn’t already, that this is no mere comedy, but instead a dark commentary on the endless human capacity to tell ourselves stories of comfort that suspend all our filters and ultimately turn upside down the values on which we build our very identities.
That this capacity has in recent decades carried so easily over from the religious to the political realm should perhaps not surprise us.
But that marriage has made for an even more unholy alliance than we see portrayed so devastatingly in this sly tragicomedy of all that is wrong with religion when it serves as a marketplace where money talks and talks and talks and soul walks, doomed to wander alone, bereft of a shared story that isn’t soiled with denial, deception and greed.
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Swaying in the pew by Priscilla Du Preez, Alberta, Canada https://unsplash.com/@priscilladupreez
Outtake and poster from the film