By Sarah Osman
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. would have been wise to stick to being a conventional mockumentary, a sardonic deconstruction of its target, the megachurch.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. Directed by Adamma Ebo. Screening at AMC Assembly Row and streaming on Peacock.
Mockumentaries have become a go-to genre for producers, and that is problematic. Yes, brilliant pieces of this kind of satire have come along. But too often the indulgence in the faux has generated lazy, assembly line ridicule. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. was executive produced by Jordan Peele and it spoofs the feeble attempts of a disgraced pastor and his wife to save their souls (along with their mega million dollar church). Unfortunately, the film is unsure about what it wants to be — a mockumentary? A feature narrative? — and that is to its detriment. Parts of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. are hilarious, but too often it proceeds at far too slow a pace for the sake of uncovering layers of reality. The question that begs to be answered: why not just make this a mockumentary through and through?
A “documentary” crew follows Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife, first lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they grapple with maintaining The Wander to Greater Paths Baptist Church. Pastor Childs has been accused of “sexual misconduct” and the pair need to come up with a way to bring their flock back to their (naughty) shepherds. The “documentary” filmmakers are there to record this hapless mission. Pastor Childs and Trinitie neatly fit the mold of other parodied megachurch leaders. That said, they are not as outrageous as the gang in The Righteous Gemstones; this pair is subtler and less gauche. Still, they have endless Rolls Royces, wear Prada, and thank the Lord for all their bounty.
Trinitie is a woman on the verge of a collapse. She smiles a little too dutifully into the camera and laughs a little too hard at her husband’s (bad) jokes. She’s careful to never insult the rival pastors whom most of their congregation are turning to. Instead, she blesses them. It could be easy to dislike the all-too-comfortable Trinitie. After all, she can afford $2,000 church bonnets and won’t leave her husband, despite his clearly unfaithful behavior. Yet Hall plays Trinitie as a woman who is determined to keep her married life together: she won’t give up on her husband because of her deep faith. Material goodies are secondary. Trinitie was raised in a strict Christian household where it was taught that a woman stays by her man — no matter what. So there is some depth lurking behind the character’s strained smile. A lesser actress would have settled with leaving Trinitie a stereotype. But Hall expands the role beyond cartoon.
Trinitie may be a three-dimensional character, but the same cannot be said for Pastor Childs. He’s an unbounded hypocrite: a groomer who preaches against the sins of “homosexuality.” Even while he is accused of being a predator the man can’t help but hit on one of the sound guys. Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. never reveals much about Pastor Childs’s backstory or intimates that he has any spiritual connection to the church. He comes across as an unmitigated exploiter (of God and man) who only cares about money. This is a standard trope in church satires and it has become tired. The result is an undeveloped character that even as fine an actor as Brown can do little with.
The film’s vacillation between being mockumentary and a conventional feature is at its most troublesome when we see Trinitie and Lee-Curtis remove their masks off-camera. We already know how fake the pair is, so this feels like gilding the lilies of the field. We learn nothing in these scenes beyond what has been already suggested by the pair when it is in front of the camera. The panic and fear is easy to spot.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. would have been wise to stick to being a conventional mockumentary, a sardonic deconstruction of its target, the megachurch. At one point, we see the pair on the side of the road, holding up large signs that read “Honk for Jesus.” Their idea is to win new recruits by way of drive-by soul saving. Moments like these score as effectively amusing ridicule. At one point, Trinitie performs “praise mime.” There are a few endearing scenes outside of the “documentary” context, such as when the pair rap together while driving home. But Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. is at its most inspired when its protagonists are in front of the “documentary” camera, struggling to jump-start their church and their lives. If satire is going to save our souls, it should not be half hearted.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman