HONK FOR JESUS. SAVE YOUR SOUL (2022)

September 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the Greater Paths Baptist Church. Or what’s left of it. Writer-director Adammo Ebo has expanded her 2018 short story (same title) into a feature film that serves up a satirical look at the proliferation of mega churches and all that entails – ego, greed, self-absorption. Her best move was casting Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown in the crucial lead roles.

In the faux-archival footage, we see Pastor Lee-Curtis Brown (Sterling K Brown) eloquently and passionately sermonizing to the massive congregation. At its peak, his church had 26,000 members who filled the offering plates each Sunday. We know this because this pastor is not shy about flashing his designer label clothes or collectible cars, or mentioning the private jets and helicopters. He uses these glitzy material goods to reinforce what good Christians each member is. But that was then, and this is now. The church has been closed due to a very public scandal involving Pastor Lee-Curtis and his inappropriate behavior with teenage boys.

The story here involves the pastor and his first lady wife Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they strategize about creating excitement for the grand re-opening of their church. The scandal is clearly the biggest hurdle; but so is Heaven’s House, a local church run by ‘Pastor Sumpter and Pastor Sumpter’, a husband and wife team played by Conphidance and Nicole Beharie (so good in BREAKING, 2022). After the scandal, Heaven’s House welcomed many transferring members and is now in the process of growing their church to a new level.

This is a mockumentary and the “documentary” filmmakers follow Lee-Curtis and Trinitie around most of the day, sometimes even when they aren’t particularly welcome. Because of this, we see Lee-Curtis as a narcissist mostly devoid of any semblance of reasonable perception of how others view him. He may seek the road to redemption, but that trust has been broken. Trinitie stood by her man through the hard times, and it seems clear they are both desperate to regain the power and privilege that is now lost.

Sterling K Brown and Regina Hall are both fully committed to these roles. Brown’s intensity, no matter how displaced his character feels, absolutely works. And Regina Hall’s performance is even more fun to watch. She’s especially effective at showing Trinitie’s inner turmoil of maintaining dignity versus the desire for the power lifestyle. She excels at biting her tongue and struggles to avoid letting her true feelings show … she’s a pillar of loyalty behind a cheerleader’s fake smile. She also delivers the perfect final shot.

This mockumentary isn’t funny in the Christopher Guest way, but rather with a bleak commentary on power-hungry people and megachurches, with a few exceptions. What once was a congregation over 20,000 is now only the “Devout Five”. We get the best ever pinkie toe joke, and Ms. Hall and Mr. Brown go all in on their rendition of Crime Mob’s “Knuck You if You Buck” while driving. It’s a bit confusing that the faux-doc doesn’t fully follow the idea of only showing what the camera crew captures, but the description of “EGO” as ‘edging God out’, and a marketing plan seemingly tied to a glittery handheld sign and statue of Jesus give us some idea about these two. In TOMBSTONE, Doc Holiday states, “My hypocrisy knows no bounds”, and that’s so true for Lee-Curtis and Trinitie. While there are flashes of brilliant satire, unfortunately the target is just too easy, and the filmmaker chooses to remain on the surface rather than dig deep for the juicy part.

Opens in theaters on September 2, 2022

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MASTER (SXSW 2022)

March 21, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With her first feature film, writer-director Mariama Diallo shows us that the terror of racism need not be blatant and obvious, and can be subtle and generational. Thanks to Jordan Peele, horror films have become de rigueur for exposing and exploring the many facets of racism. Ms. Diallo embraces the genre, while also mixing in the element of classism and entitlement.

Regina Hall is superb as Gail Bishop, the newly hired first black House Master at Ancaster College, a fictional, Ivy League-type school in the northeast that is as old as our country. Also excellent is Zoe Renee as Jasmine, a high-achieving black incoming freshman. A brilliant touch displays the symmetry of move-in day. Gail moves in to a creaky, dusty old home on campus, while Jasmine draws “the room” in dormitory. What is “the room”? Well, there is a legend tied to student deaths and long-ago witch trials … and 3:33am on the clock.

The supernatural forces attached to her room are only part of the challenges facing Jasmine. There is also her roommate played by Talia Ryder, the overall entitlement of other students, and another interesting character – her professor of Literature, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). Ms. Beckman is friends with Gail, but Jasmine files an official complaint alleging she was targeted on her grade for a paper on racism in “The Scarlet Letter”. Complicating the matter, Ms. Beckman is also black and up for tenure, despite a shaky publishing record and a curious lack of background detail.

The multiple story lines become more intricate with the odd editing and threads as presented. Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby works wonders with the creep factor, but the editing choices are often curious. Gail’s big career stepping stone introduces her to institutional racism at the institution where she’s employed. The three main characters each have their own story arcs, and the intersections are often quite advanced. However, the multiple stories do create some cinematic obstacles, and not all are handled smoothly, especially in the final act. Still, Ms. Diallo announces herself as a filmmaker to watch, and all three lead actors perform admirably.

In select theaters and on Prime Video beginning March 18, 2022

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