Roughly 15 minutes into Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul, I found myself blurting out a thought I would repeat multiple times throughout the film: “Oh, she hates him. She fucking hates him!”
The duo in question are Lee-Curtis and Trinitie Childs—played by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall, respectively—a Baptist pastor and his ride-or-die wife who are struggling to reclaim their flock after a devastating scandal. Adamma Ebo’s satirical comedy, which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, wears its evaluation of the megachurch supercouple on its expensive, immaculately pressed sleeve. From their Prada-heavy wardrobe (and Trinitie’s thousand-dollar hats) to the production effects Lee-Curtis proudly says his place of worship pioneered, the Childs’ excess feels like something akin to HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones—another dramatic comedy that targets these exploitative religious institutions’ deluded self-righteousness.
Look a little more closely, though, and you’ll discover the tragicomedy lurking underneath the expensive suit—an exploration of religion, narcissism, and self-alienation that holds space for some complicated realities.
The formula might not have worked with another pair of actors leading the charge. Hall’s gift for expressive, fourth-wall-breaking stares complements Brown’s bombastic power behind the pulpit. The pair’s chemistry is fantastic, even (and perhaps especially) when they’re at odds, and the actors’ shared zest for taking their characters’ ridiculousness to the max is a delight (case in point: a scene in which a frustrated Trinitie resentfully listens to her husband rapping along to Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck”—only to join in anyway).
As for the scandal rocking the Childs’ world, we learn that Lee-Curtis was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple young, male former congregants—and the longer we observe the pastor’s response, the more fascinating his wife’s pent-up fury becomes. Perhaps that’s why the crew filming a documentary about the couple simply will not leave her alone.
Honk for Jesus unfolds largely as a mockumentary created by a mostly silent director named Anita (although we do eventually hear her, the fictional director never enters the frame). Trinitie resents Anita’s constantly rolling cameras and “fly on the wall” approach from the beginning, and over time, it’s easy to see why. With each forced smile, each evasive and dissembling response about Lee-Curtis’ misdeeds, the fury quivering in Hall’s eyes intensifies. She’s spent years, it seems, performing both for the congregation and for her husband, playing the well-worn role of a loyal First Lady whose most unshakeable faith rests not in the Lord, but in the man sitting on the matching throne by her side.
And now, here come Anita and her cameras—yet more people for whom Trinitie must put on a show. There’s also a new, competing megachurch opening on Easter Sunday, the same date the Childs’ church is scheduled to rise again and reopen services after the scandal. So the stakes of Trinitie’s performance are about as high as the heavens.
Honk for Jesus knows better than to frame Trinitie’s grief as empathetic. She’s an accessory to her husband’s misconduct and an enabler—a fact neither Anita, nor her documentary, nor the film that contains them, ever forgets.
With each passing scene, the Childs’ internalized need to project a certain kind of righteousness becomes clearer. The couple’s warped relationship with faith and wealth appears to have completely destroyed their capacity for self-love—and by extension, their relationship with genuine godliness, which demands we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
While Trinitie has learned to sublimate her needs to suit her husband’s will (an all-too prominent feature of several Christian sects) Lee-Curtis, too, is at war with himself. When Trinitie wakes him up for sex, he attempts to penetrate her from behind until she asks to do it the “regular” way. He struggles to maintain an erection in the missionary position and asks her instead to perform fellatio—and then nods off to sleep without any concern for her pleasure. One gets the sense that this is not the first time Trinitie’s desire for intimacy has ended in disappointment. And in the next scene? Lee-Curtis delivers a fiery sermon about how the gays are destroying marriage. Hmmmm.
One could argue that Lee-Curtis’ implied sexual repression plays into a pernicious, homophobic trope—the gay man as predator. But neither Ebo’s writing nor her direction argue that Lee-Curtis’ sexuality and his sexual misconduct are necessarily related; sexual assault, after all, is often about power as much as it is about sex. And as tangled as Lee-Curtis’ relationship with his sexuality might be, his relationship with power is even more disturbed.
Lee-Curtis, at least by the time we meet him, is a textbook narcissist, his need for validation so tremendous that only a massive congregation will do the trick. (Fascinatingly enough, a 2015 study of college men found that subjects who displayed narcissistic traits were more likely to commit sexual assault.) The pastor refuses to confront his predatory behavior, even when asked directly. And as he practices his comeback sermon, his beleaguered wife doesn’t even attempt to hide her disdain for his insincerity.
At the same time, however, the film holds space for an uncomfortable truth: When granted access to massive audiences, even the most monstrous person can, paradoxically, make a positive impact in the lives of some who don’t know them intimately. What should we make, for instance, of the fact that an inmate picking up trash stops Lee-Curtis to thank him for making a profound impact in his life? It’s a thorny question at a time when “icons” like Bill Cosby are (sometimes) being held accountable for abusive behavior—and although Ebo stops short of providing an answer, the exchange adds even more texture to the film’s relationship with its subjects.
The ultimate elevating factor, however, is Hall, whose performance of resentment reaches a full boil by the film’s end. Honk for Jesus’ title might, on its face, represent the cheapening and commodification of what should be a spiritual practice, but it also highlights Trinitie’s own degradation in the film’s final act. Slathered in gospel mime makeup and forced to dance on the side of the road while holding a poster board to entice passersby, Trinitie’s cool facade finally cracks. It’s a stark contrast to a confrontation the Childs share with one of Lee-Child’s survivors, who carries himself with more dignity than the power couple shares between them.
Hall’s final monologue is a tragicomic wonder, and not only because she manages to deliver emotions so deeply felt from under that makeup. Trinitie is a ball of self-righteous fury after all this time stuck under her husband’s thumb—and when Anita finally jumps in to ask a seemingly obvious question after hours of filming, Trinitie’s rage explodes in spectacular, unsettlingly human fashion. You know what they say: Hell hath no fury like a First Lady scorned.