Satire Definition: The use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.
We live in wild times. It used to be that satirical movies lampooned their targets with over-the-top recreations of actual events. Nowadays, the world is so out of wack that modern satires merely repeat what actually happened.
Adam McKay’s recent end of the world dramedy Don’t Look Up is a prime example. After the last presidential administration’s Loony Tunes-calibre buffoonery, how does a satirical filmmaker go about lowering the bar?
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. puts the film’s writer-director Adamma Ebo in the same boat as McKay. The plot follows a megachurch pastor and his wife/First Lady as they work at rebuilding their congregation after a public scandal.
You would think a social satire mixing The Righteous Gemstones with The Office would have plenty of leeway to go big and broad with its comedy. But we’re talking about the church in 2022, an institution with a history of flashy sermons, egotistical leaders, and extravagant rituals. Watching a televised megachurch event is like tuning into a WWE pay-per-view. So how can Ebo satirize a world where truth is often stranger than fiction?
Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) is the First Lady of a Southern Baptist megachurch. Her husband, pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) may be the church’s star attraction, but Trinitie is the one working hard behind the scenes to keep the ship afloat.
The god-loving power couple seems to have it all. They live in a mansion the size of a high school, drive exotic sports cars, and adorn themselves in clothes and jewellery costing enough to put the whole Stranger Things cast through college.
Their caviar lifestyle hits a snag after Lee-Curtis gets caught up in a public controversy. The scandal forces the Childs to temporarily shut down their church, closing their doors to their thousands of devoted worshippers.
When the film begins, Trinitie and Lee-Curtis are preparing for their grand re-opening. Further complicating things is the documentary crew on hand to record the weeks leading up to the big event. Things don’t go smooth, and the doc crew captures every awkward moment along the way.
There are times when the characters know they’re being filmed and put on their best faces for the camera. But during other scenes the film plays out like a traditional drama, and the characters don’t know they’re being watched.
What’s most shocking about Honk for Jesus. is how grounded in reality this ridiculous story feels. I’ve seen Lee-Curtis-like figures scandalized in the news since I was a child. And even as a kid, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how folks put their faith in such overtly sketchy religious leaders. Jesus cared about the sick and the poor while these Lee-Curtis types dress like villains out of Blaxploitation movies.
The self-serving Childs behave like narcissists and put their own interests ahead of the people they claim to serve. What separates them from other notorious religious figures is how the Childs often slip up and reveal their true colours on camera. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the social media age when people’s desperate need for attention leads to oversharing – even when they’re being toxic.
Trinitie and Lee-Curtis are magnetic onscreen and make compelling protagonists. Hall and Brown turn in a pair of powerhouse performances that hit every beat on the emotional spectrum.
In lesser hands, Lee-Curtis would come off as more Michael Scott than Michael Douglas. Brown digs into Lee-Curtis’ soul and draws from the ravenous inferiority that drives his best and worst impulses.
The golden rule of storytelling is show don’t tell, and Hall has an impressive way of expressing complicated feelings with a single expression. She is the rock that grounds her husband in the real world when his head’s in the clouds. Putting these two complicated jerks together onscreen makes for storytelling gold.
Honk for Jesus calls out hypocrisy, blind faith, and capitalism with comedic glee. But the film’s scathing social commentary feels more like gentle tsk tsks. Ebo’s take on megachurch culture doesn’t tread new ground or bring fresh insights to the conversation. However, Hall and Brown’s charismatic performances transform Honk for Jesus into a divine pleasure.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Head here for more from this year’s festival.