“Marriage is the only way to prosperity and the only way into the kingdom of God,” exclaims Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown), the pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch, “Take it from me… I am the prophet with the beautiful wife and the gorgeous Bugatti!” The crowd of worshippers laugh and applaud, either glad or ignorant about their role in bankrolling a charlatan. Lee-Curtis and his wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) use religion not for the community but for their own pursuit of wanton materialism. This is the satirical conceit of Adamma Ebo’s Honk for Jesus. Save your Soul. and it lays it on very thick within the opening half hour.
For example, during a tour of their cavernous walk-in wardrobe, Trinitie talks of avoiding extravagance as Lee-Curtis tries on a pair of glittery turquoise loafers and a yellow trilby hat. Another scene sees the couple sitting on gilded thrones. These sight gags are punctuated by the Childs’ many crass references to their wealth, in what feels like a particularly annoying episode of MTV Cribs. There’s no doubt that holy hypocrites are worthy targets of satire. The problem is that it’s all rather one note and obvious. You can only play a joke so many times.
Much of the film is shot with a mockumentarian’s camera, all fluid and shaky. However, the real authenticity is in Hall and Brown, who play Trinitie and Lee-Curtis with glib bombast. Speaking to camera in a cinéma vérité style, the Childs look at each other with broad performative smiles with the purpose of stage managing rather than any real affection; they are a deliriously narcissistic couple who are deep in their own personality cult. The camerawork and performances are such that you may be reminded ofLouis Theroux or the 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. Such a comparison reflects the film’s realism but it also works against it, as you are reminded that the truth is often stranger – and more interesting – than fiction.
The mockumentary style does not follow the Childs into every area of their life; A conventional aesthetic is used in quieter moments, such as in the bedroom or at the dining table. The characters continue to ring true in these moments, especially during an awkward sex scene in which Lee-Curtis can only perform when they do the “other thing”, which does not necessarily align with Christian values.
The real problem comes from outside the marital bed, though.A sex scandal forces the Childs to close their church and lay low for a while, presenting an opportunity for an up-and-coming holy couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie). Fluent in speech and clean in appearance, the Sumpters have the same grinning righteousness that will impress the old timers. But make no mistake; there is no Christian fraternity between the Childs and the Sumpters. This is a turf war. After all, as George Carlin said, “God loves you and he needs money!”