The Wander to Greater Paths Southern Baptist mega-church has a grand reopening in Atlanta and wants to make sure the world knows about it. So for the impending “revival,” Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife, Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall), have hired a film crew to chronicle their return to Sunday fame. . In the opening scenes of Honk for Jesus. save your Soul shows Greater Paths at the height of its popularity – 25,000 strong people in the congregation and the pastor talking about all his earthly possessions due to his loyalty to God’s work. However, this abruptly disappears when a presenter mentions a horrible scandal. The Childs closed the doors of the church, but planned a wonderful reformation under the forgiving spirit of the gospel.
Writer/director Adamma Ebo’s film begins by satirizing the extravagance of religious culture. When we visit the church with Lee-Curtis and Trinitie, there is a dance studio and a closet full of dresses and costumes for days. With the reopening scheduled for Easter Sunday, Lee-Curtis immediately thinks he needs a new one. (However, he gets tripped up slightly when his high-priced Italian shoes find old gum on the sole). If everyone was a stage, Lee-Curtis is no doubt looking forward to being the star of it. Trinitie is there to support him in all his ideas (and even his delusions).
While the film continues to joke around, a documentary-style return can only do so much to protect the pain behind the smiles. There’s a dark undercurrent within Honk for Jesus, where Ebo strives to address themes of marriage, forgiveness, showmanship and misconduct. It’s a daunting task because there are so many layers to what the film is trying to attack. Besides the issues of allegations, the kids have to worry about a rival church named Heaven’s House. A younger couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie), seized the opportunity to receive a large following from Greater Paths. To make matters worse, the couple plan to open on Easter Sunday as Childs.
It touches on the marketing of the church itself. Heaven’s House makes his building much more attractive and even includes beautiful light fixtures for his sermons. Conpidance and Beharie are starkly opposite images in persona, toying with Brown and Hall. When they all interact, it feels like an intentional juxtaposition is trying to be shown. The Sumpters seem to want to be a helping hand, but also aren’t shy about what they’ve gained in the Childs’ absence. Meanwhile, Honk for Jesus tells the story of how some church figures believe in their own hype where the blame is null and void.
Throughout the performance, radio callers denounce the allegations thrown at Lee-Curtis because of the great sermons he has given in the past. He also seems to believe in his pride – often appearing self-centered and grandiose. The Greater Path Church Reform Project takes precedence over any atonement for its actions. A particular sermon is shown where Lee-Curtis denounces homosexuality and blames the devil for the things he has done wrong.
And there’s Trinity, the glue trying to hold it all together. Slowly, but surely, things are fraying around the edges. The couple’s calm and confident facade turns into a relationship that’s been through the worst. Brown and Hall’s performances drive that message home, even when Honk for Jesus gets lost in everything he wants to show. Later in the film, Trinitie has a conversation with her mother about the struggles with her marriage. She quickly dismisses the sadness within Trinity and mentions that she must trust the word of the Bible. Trinitie quickly realizes that this could be a lifelong process, as her mother did it until her father died. Her loyalty goes unrewarded as she finds herself in my face paint trying to advertise the reopening of the church.
So sadness lives inside Honk for Jesus that doesn’t leave room for all the humor. What does resurrection mean when you cannot properly be who you are or apologize for who you have wronged without being rejected? Are these characters complicit in the system, or almost products of something that promises salvation to many? The film does not explain it to you; you will wish. With so many things to think about Honk for Jesus has to say, you might want it to focus on its overall purpose – especially at the conclusion. Maybe it’s in the eye of the beholder. Lee-Curtis compares his back story to the first Rocky movie, where Trinitie quickly reminds him that he lost (a mistake a lot of people make). For anyone who is a longtime practitioner, there will be things to sit with.
Photo Credit: Focus Features