Sundance 2022: ‘Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul’ reflects alumnus’ relationship with church culture
Starring Regina Hall (left) and Sterling K. Brown (right) as a megachurch’s first lady and pastor, respectively, “Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul” explores what happens when powerful institutions go unchecked. The film was directed and written by alumnus Adamma Ebo, who wrote the screenplay during her time at UCLA. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)
"Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul"
Directed by Adamma Ebo
By Vivian Xu
Jan. 23, 2022 1:36 p.m.
Jesus is taking the wheel – and giving it a honk while he’s at it.
Directed and written by alumnus Adamma Ebo, “Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul” is a contender in Sundance Film Festival’s Premieres category. The film draws heavily upon her upbringing in Atlanta, which was characterized by the presence of megachurch culture, she said. As she grew older, Ebo said her relationship with the church grew increasingly multifaceted, which provoked her to write about observations and critiques she had about the institution.
“Being raised Southern Baptist was cool until it wasn’t for me,” Ebo said. “I developed a more complex relationship with it. I wasn’t adhering strictly to what I was taught to believe – I was asking more questions and being super critical about the things that I saw around me.”
Starring Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall as the pastor and first lady of a Southern Baptist church, respectively, the film navigates how the pair attempts to mitigate the aftermath of a scandal involving the pastor. The couple hires a documentary team in an effort to repair the church’s damaged image and to restore its once carefully curated optics.
Though the film will be having its world premiere at Sundance, its history dates back to Ebo’s time at UCLA. The first draft of the script came from a feature writing class she took, and she said it was the first feature that she had written. After listening to a talk by “Whiplash” director Damien Chazelle, who first created a short film before shooting a feature, Ebo said she followed suit, producing a short film of the script as her thesis project.
“I was in that phase where I was being very, very critical about (the church) but still felt like I wanted some sort of tie to the church,” Ebo said. “I was like, ‘Okay, think about the things that you are most critical about, figure out a way to conceive that while also cultivating some sort of love letter to the elements that you think are beneficial and beautiful.’”
Many of the stylistic choices present in the full-length feature were also inspired by Ebo’s own experiences as part of a Southern Baptist megachurch, including the elaborately dressed-up costumes reminiscent of a fashion show, she said. Other colloquialisms like exclamations calling upon the Lord were also naturally integrated into the script as part of Southern mannerisms, Ebo’s twin sister and co-producer Adanne Ebo said.
“For the larger Black community, church is more than just a spiritual thing,” Adanne Ebo said. “It’s a communal thing, it permeates everything. It’s the way we talk, the way we dress, the way that we address other people. That’s a connectivity that is, for us, more than just the actual church institution itself.”
The film’s cinematography also relies upon the trademark distinctions to communicate with the audience as it transitions from faux documentary to cinematic style to archival footage. Director of photography Alan Gwizdowski said the cinematography depended on subtle visual cues and the audience’s own familiarity with cinematic genres to distinguish between the film’s internal documentary and the actual feature itself.
To present the documentary style, Gwizdowski said he strove for a handheld look by employing a spherical lens, simulating the attentive nature of a documentary. Contrarily, to present the cinematic sequences, the team switched over to an anamorphic lens and a widescreen aspect ratio, he said. For audiences without a knowledge of cameras, the visual look of the film is enough for them to separate the documentary from the narrative story, Gwizdowski said.
In a similar balance of duality, while the film features situational comedy, it simultaneously handles sensitive material surrounding the pastor’s scandal, Adamma Ebo said. In order to balance the darker themes with comedic elements, Adamma Ebo said she played up the blatantly funny aspects of the film, such as jokes about Black Southern megachurch culture, but let the film naturally take a more serious tone as graver material presented itself.
“There’s this (rule) in comedy – at least television comedy – where it’s three jokes per page,” Adamma Ebo said. “Instead of doing three jokes, I’m going to do two and then hit you with something real.”
Ultimately, Adamma Ebo said she intends for the film to heed caution against blind faith in established rules and leadership. In her own experience with the church, the lack of further questioning of accepted norms and holding leadership to a different standard than the rest of the community are both elements that she hopes the film can change, she said.
“Taking things at face value or never properly questioning things to the point where you feel like taking some sort of action, whether larger or personal, is extremely dangerous,” Adamma Ebo said. “It keeps people and institutions very complacent. I want (audiences) to walk away with the urge to ask more questions.”