In church satires there’s always a scene in which a ritual, tradition or show of faith becomes a grand spectacle. The joke isn’t the faith itself but the performance of faith — and a performance of virtue, even when that’s far from the truth. If you can pull off that show without a hitch, heavenly paradise may not be guaranteed. But worldly riches likely will be.
In the movie “Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul,” which premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and is now in theaters, the first lady of a once-popular Southern Baptist megachurch and her pastor husband aim to make a grand comeback after a sexual harassment scandal. When they fail to commit to the performance that in the past had brought success to them and their church, they endure a fall from grace.
Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) is the king and shepherd of Wander to Greater Paths church, where he employs his altar like a stage, delivering rousing sermons during which the spirit may cause him to quiver, shake and strip right out of his church clothes. He sits on a regal throne alongside his wife, Trinitie (Regina Hall). Together they maintain a costly image; Trinitie treats herself to an expensive, elaborate church hat from a shop in the mall, while Lee-Curtis shows off his expansive collection of designer shoes and suits, which he claims helps him with his ministry.
Written and directed by Adamma Ebo, the film focuses on Trinitie and how she deals with the consequences of her husband’s sexual indiscretions with members of their congregation. Trinitie already has to put on one kind of performance, as a first lady who supports her husband, honoring their marital vows even when he has dishonored his. But she is also delivering an additional performance: as her husband’s beard. When the film reveals that Lee-Curtis’s transgressions were not with women but with young men, it juxtaposes this reveal with flashback scenes of Lee-Curtis ardently condemning homosexuality to a cheering congregation, showing that he was speaking through a now-transparent screen of hypocrisy and self-hate.
The most striking part of the film, however, is how it reads as a bleak, cringe-worthy tragedy rather than a comedy; close-ups of Trinitie’s face show her cracking beneath the surface, and her exasperation and even resentment of her husband form visible watermarks on the perfect portrait of marriage they’ve constructed. Bedroom scenes show Lee-Curtis’s lack of sexual interest in Trinitie, despite her attempts at intimacy. And when Trinitie goes to her mother for marriage advice, she is brusquely shut down, told that even in the current circumstances she can only be a good Christian woman if she stands with her husband until death. Take it from a theater critic: There’s nothing more depressing than watching an unwilling actor trapped on a stage.
This concept is at the heart of many other church satires. In the hilarious HBO comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” a family of megachurch royals have their services broadcast on TV, and their masses and church events are as gaudy as festivals; the family even owns a Gemstones-themed amusement park on their sprawling multimansion estate. These Bible rock stars are not just TV preachers, but also recording artists: The siblings Aimee-Leigh Gemstone (Jennifer Nettles) and Baby Billy (Walton Goggins) first rose to fame with their touring religious musical act.
In last year’s obscure — and utterly unwatchable — satirical faith-based comedy “Church People,” which features Thor Ramsey, two of the Baldwins (Stephen, William), one of the N*Syncers (Joey Fatone) and Turk from “Scrubs” (Donald Faison), an eccentric megachurch pastor (Michael Monks) comes up with new antics to up the church’s popular appeal, to the chagrin of Guy (Ramsey), a celebrity youth pastor. When a real-life crucifixion becomes the plan for the church’s Easter service, Guy aims to stop the proceedings and return the congregation to the Gospel teachings.
The religious pageantry in these movies and TV shows is only one part of the satire; at the root is the underlying hypocrisy of the characters. In “Honk for Jesus,” it’s Lee-Curtis’s predatory grooming. In Douglas Lyons’s church comedy play “Chicken & Biscuits,” which premiered on Broadway last fall, it’s the newly deceased patriarch and pastor who, his family finds out during his funeral, has a few sinful secrets of his own. In “The Righteous Gemstones,” it’s Baby Billy and Eli (John Goodman), the iron-fisted commander of the church and the Gemstone family, each acting as upstanding shepherds of the faith to achieve money and celebrity while escaping the more unsavory parts of their past. It’s the immoral — and sometimes illegal — activities of Jesse Gemstone (Danny McBride) and Judy Gemstone (Edi Patterson).
And the show’s wackiest story lines are offered courtesy of Eli’s youngest son, Kelvin (Adam Devine), who finds creative ways to fit his repressed homosexuality into absurd pageants of religious ceremony — like forming a group of muscular all-male, scantily clad disciples, the God Squad, who resolve conflicts by having cross-bearing contests.
In the sharp, Tony-winning Broadway musical “A Strange Loop,” an usher named Usher is trying to write a “big, Black and queer” musical — the very show we’re watching — despite the disapproval of his parents and the unhelpful intrusions of his inner thoughts. His mother begs him to “write a nice, clean Tyler Perry-like gospel play.” Usher resentfully sings about writing the shallow, stereotypical artwork his mother wants, and near the end of “A Strange Loop,” the whole production transforms into an over-exaggerated, “overblown yet false display / just like in a gospel play,” Usher sings.
Knowing that his sexuality is at odds with the church values to which his mother subscribes, he puts on a performance mocking the sometimes cruel and exclusionary standards many church communities hoist onto their faithful. A threatening lit-up cross appears on set, where Usher condemns himself in a fiery sermon of self-hate while his inner thoughts appear as robed choir members singing a refrain of “AIDS is God’s punishment.” He tells his mother this is the only way he can write a gospel play, but she misreads his scathing satire as truth, tells him he can still save himself from the threat of homosexuality.
But in the show’s final scenes, Usher drops the mock gospel play as his thoughts confront him about his intentions, how he claims he’s showing the audience “real life.” “And real life is making hateful anti-Black caricatures in a Tyler Perry-style gospel play?” one asks.
So much of the meta show is about traversing the line between reality and fiction, and how we write ourselves in the stories of our lives — when we make ourselves valiant or pitiful, strong or weak, the hero or the villain. Usher can’t write his mother’s gospel play because it contradicts his identity; he’s unwilling to be dishonest, even within a fake play within a musical about a writer writing a musical.
One of the saddest moments in “Honk for Jesus” sounds like it should be one of the funniest: Lee-Curtis goads Trinitie into praise-miming (which is, inexplicably, a real practice) on the side of the road outside their church in a desperate attempt to attract congregants. Hall deadpans to the camera, in her elaborate pastel-yellow church dress and matching hat, her face caked in a thick white-and-black mime makeup. Trinitie was once queen of the pulpit, and now she’s just the jester. She and Curtis-Lee stand side by side in front of the camera, but her rage is palpable, even beneath the calm facade. He uneasily tries to carry on with the show — to reestablish himself as the good-guy pastor — but his scene partner seems to have gone mute.