"Sterling hasn't been this funny in anything before," says Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. writer-director Adamma Ebo. "And Regina has definitely started taking on more dramatic roles in recent years [but is] more known for her hard comedy. It's kind of reversed for them. But what attracted them to these roles is that they're getting to do something that I don't think they've been able to do yet in their careers."
Shot largely as a mockumentary, the religious satire stars Sterling K. Brown as Lee-Curtis Childs, the disgraced pastor of a Southern megachurch, and Regina Hall as Trinitie Childs, his devoted first lady. Hoping to mount a comeback after a public scandal nearly takes down their church, the couple hires a film crew to capture their resurrection on camera. They then find themselves going to increasingly desperate lengths to claw their way back into good favor.
"They had the tonal breadth to tackle what we were trying to tackle with these characters, which are very complex characters, who are not wholly bad, not wholly good," says Adanne Ebo, Adamma's twin sister and producer. The movie itself is neither wholly a comedy nor played straight as a drama, instead veering from slapstick into something more emotional within a single scene. "We knew that they had the acting chops to carry that," Adanne adds.
What Brown and Hall didn't have, it turns out, is a familiarity with Crime Mob's 2004 anthem, "Knuck If You Buck." Which was a problem, because, in one sequence, the holier-than-thou couple raps along to every explicit lyric of the extremely secular song.
"They had never heard it before," Adamma tells A.frame. "Neither one of them had heard it before!"
"Your reaction was our reaction," Adanne says, as if still in disbelief. "I was like, 'How have you never heard of the international sensation that is 'Knuck If You Buck'? But they hadn't, so they had to learn their parts quickly. Because we took our time trying to find the right song."
The rap-along gets perhaps the biggest laugh of the movie, but the Ebo twins didn't choose that specific song just to be outrageous. In the scene, Lee-Curtis and Trinitie are cruising in their luxury SUV, en route to confront frenemy pastors (played by Nicole Beharie and Conphidance); the lyrics become something like a soliloquy in that moment: Yeah, we knuckin' and buckin' and ready to fight / I betcha I'ma throw them things, so haters best to think twice.
"There was a lot of pressure," Hall says.
"Because neither one of us knew 'Knuck If You Buck' before," Brown confirms. "We were in Atlanta, and they were about to judge us and take away our Black cards for a second! So, we were like, 'We got to get this thing down!' There was pressure. But it was fun too, to live in that moment."
Those specific words may have previously escaped the actors, but they made up for it and then some by bringing plenty of their own throughout the shoot. "The improv was shocking," Adamma says. "I don't know why I was surprised, because they're phenomenal." The entire structure of the movie changed in post-production to accommodate a tear Hall went on as Trinitie, which begins with her lamenting the difficulties of being a first lady and ends with her likening herself to a rat chewing through a wall. That was all Hall on the day, and the Ebos knew it had to open Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.
"The script is pretty dialogue-heavy, so there was so much for them to have to master just with what was written on the page. And I was like, 'Dang, y'all got more in you than we used?'" recalls Adanne. "I was super pleasantly surprised. There's so much that didn't make it into the final film, but it was so much to choose from! In a good way, it made editing hard!"