Thursday, September 1, 2022


We’re swimming in phonies these days. Watch the pundits duly reciting talking points in defense of truly ridiculous and patently false premises—like, say, that the 2020 election was stolen, or that it’s normal for an ex-president to lie about returning topic secret documents he snuck into his golf resort—and you have to wonder if even they believe the preposterous things they’re saying. That tension has always been at the sleazy center of the televangelist, a push-pull between genuine religious sentiment and a straight up con. It seems as good a place as any to drill down into the sludge of disingenuous holier-than-thou demeanors that are so irritating in our culture. That’s the vein of hypocrisy and sympathy that The Eyes of Tammy Faye mined in its biopic stylings of a true scandal, ultimately finding the humanity in its lead’s good intentions. It’s also the richly hilarious terrain of the ongoing HBO comedy The Righteous Gemstones, a satiric, vulgar, and preposterous Southern Gothic King Lear in a tacky megachurch that’s somehow lovable, too. (That’s the Danny McBride special, I suppose.) And it finds perhaps its most literal expression of late in Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. Writer-director Adamma Ebo, expanding a short of the same name, makes a movie that splits its time, and sometimes even its scenes, between a flat digital parodic mockumentary and a more nuanced and compelling character drama unfolding in stark grainy scope.

Switching between these two modes is the story of a couple desperately spinning artifice to get out of a calamitous series of revelations. Preening pastor Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his wife (Regina Hall) have closed their big Atlanta church following revelations of sexual impropriety on his part. Now they’re planning an Easter Sunday comeback, complete with a carefully stage-managed semi-confession and plea for PR redemption. Thus the camera crew following them around, catching grinning smiles hiding the panic behind their eyes. These scenes are full of frantic spin and empty braggadocio. They’re in full prosperity gospel mode, a greedy sermon building a monument to their own material success and calling it God’s. We’re meeting them past a scandal that has left them with only five members, and struggling to get the message out that they’re on the way back. But what we see of their flailing in front of the camera from these angles is all artifice slipping away. We’re presented standard ideas about materialism—a tour of an expensive wardrobe, a fleet of sports cars, two enormous golden thrones—and hypocrisy, like slipping out an expletive when stepping in gum. There are also surface glosses of mindless sermons. We never get a clear sense of their religious beliefs, beyond one blatantly homophobic speech setup for an ironic disjunction. Nor do we see if there’s any real missionary zeal beyond their need to be set apart as the focus of donations and attention.

That’s why the “real” scenes within the movie are a such a relief. Away from the self-conscious performances-within-performances of the faux-doc style (and in practice, that stuff is sitcom simple anyway), Hall and Brown are allowed to let their characterizations breathe. Hall, especially, is quite good as a woman clinging to a sinking relationship, trying to see her way toward staying, even, and despite, the deep pain that’s still there. The movie never quite tips its hand with the full details of the pastor’s indiscretions—just hints that he’s wooed young men with lavish gifts, and one semi-seduction scene that’s full of squirming suspense. So it’s difficult to ultimately judge for what he’s asking to be forgiven. Characters hint that they know more than we do, and the couple themselves certainly won’t confess on camera. But the scenes without the doc conceit let the implications linger, as they characters drop the act and talk frankly. They sing along to hardcore rap, explore sexual dysfunction, and cringe as they can’t prevent confrontations with the truth of what they’ve done from slipping out in conversation with former congregants in ways both shady and sharp. Hall sells the tough edges of resolve, the stubborn denial of trauma, and the uncertainty of potential forgiveness. Brown, for his part, is a fine unreflective peacock of a preacher, also skating just one slip from doom. The actors lift the script beyond the routine. If the movie’s halves cohered as well, and with as much depth and nuance, as its leads' performances, it’d really be something. So it’s two approaches to the same material in one film. Shame only one’s nearly worth it.

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