Nthat every Black actor is called to play a church pastor on screen. But those who get the part, get the part. Arsenio Hall, a preacher’s kid, channeled his father while hamming it up as Reverend Brown in Coming to America. Courtney B Vance had flashbacks of his childhood churchgoing experience while portraying the conflicted Reverend Biggs in The Preacher’s Wife, and even took the extra step of getting baptized before shooting began. “When we were filming at the church and the choir was singing,” Vance told Jet magazine in 1996, “the Holy Spirit took over. This isn’t just a movie. It’s the Holy Spirit working.”
Even actors in small-screen pastor roles rise to the occasion. All summer I’ve struggled to stop myself from rewinding this old JamIe Foxx Show clip of him as the flask-shooting Reverend Alizé, a character you have to believe sprang from formative experiences as a church band member in rural Texas. (“He coulda been cloudy as Kahlúa,” Alizé says while officiating the funeral of a man he’s desperately trying not to disparage, “but Jevus made him clear as vodka!”) For so many Americans the Black church is a rite of passage of joys, conflicts and contradictions – which is what makes preacher portrayals so magnetic, after all. They take you back. Hence why the Black church is such an enduring screen trope and, increasingly, real life imitates art.
Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. doesn’t resonate in the same way, however. The Jordan Peele-produced film was stretched from a 2018 short of the same name and the 90-minute version stars Sterling K Brown and Regina Hall as Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs – respectively, the pastor and first lady of a beleaguered Atlanta megachurch mired in scandal. Their once-robust flock of 25,000 has dwindled down to just five sad sacks. Most of the deserters have found a home with a husband and wife pastoring team who used to be part of Childs’s ministry, and is now poised to overtake it. Fold in a mockumentary-style POV, and it’s clear the film would have you take it for a comedy. So why are the laughs so few and far between?
Well, for one thing, rookie feature writer-director Adamme Ebo fixates on the same joke – the inherent hypocrisy of institutional religion and prosperity hucksters like the Childses. On camera, they project piety. In the privacy of their Escalade, they rap along to filthy hip-hop music. In bed, they praise God – and mean it. But at no point do we get a sense of what made them such a Sunday draw before the scandal. Brown’s Lee-Curtis isn’t big on Pentecostal-style showmanship. There’s no call and response, no wild metaphors, no grunts or staccato speech runs. There’s just Lee-Curtis railing against homosexuality because, you know, he’s in the closet.
Worse, Lee-Curtis has been grooming teenage boys and can’t even help coming on to a young sound guy in the documentary crew. It’s this compulsion that’s cost Lee-Curtis his flock and now has him working overtime to broker a bank-breaking settlement with his accusers so he can get back to the hustle.
Not only is this setup not funny. It’s ripped from the headlines. A decade ago an Atlanta megachurch pastor called Eddie Long was sued by a handful of young men who accused him of using his position of power to coerce them into sexual relationships. The scandal did not lead to a great exodus among the church’s 25,000 members or otherwise hurt Long, who was also quite outspoken against homosexuality.
But there’s no mystery as to why Long held on to his job in the pulpit until he died in 2017 at age 63 from what his church called “an aggressive form of cancer”. He was a spellbinding spectacle, and it takes a mega personality to fill the pews, close the book deals and keep TV money and donations streaming in. Brown certainly has the comedic and dramatic chops to go there. But he’s hamstrung by the film’s lackluster writing, sluggish pacing and fidgety point of view. Hall, a comedic tour de force who should’ve crushed the Trinitie role, is let down, too. Honk would have you believe her first lady is the true victim of this scandal, which takes way too long to play out. Trinitie is the one who carries her husband’s water on camera and in the community and is thoroughly humiliated in the final act. And yet it’s rival mega pastors Keon Sumpter (Confidence) and wife Shakura (Nicole Beharie) who come off more winsome – mostly because they didn’t get more screen time to evolve their own duplicity.
Ebo tries to garner sympathy for Trinitie, leaving her around boys her husband either had seduced or would have if he got the chance. But you never really get the sense that their marriage was more than community theater. You don’t feel for them.
Black church is all about feeling – the building, the people, the message. But Honk has none of that soul. At best, the film is an abstract commentary on a culture it doesn’t fully understand; at worst, it’s half-hearted creative license. And at this late stage, sadly, not even Jevus could save it.