Nigeria US: Ebo’s ‘Honk for Jesus. Save your Soul’ is just the start of this dynamic duo

By Wilfred Okiche
Posted on Friday, 6 January 2023 10:05

Photo from film 'Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul' (photo: @honkforjesus)

The Hollywood awards season is currently up and running, and this year African cinema is making its mark, particularly with the debut film by Nigerian American filmmaker Adamma Ebo.

The frontrunners are being coronated, but don’t forget Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, the debut film written and directed by Nigerian American filmmaker Adamma Ebo.

The riotous comedy premiered at the Sundance film festival and is now streaming on Peacock stars Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown, both doing the most assured work of their careers.

Brand of evangelism

The beloved thespians play Trinitie and Lee-Curtis Childs, an Atlanta-based Southern Baptist megachurch pastoring couple attempting to mount a comeback after an ugly scandal had shuttered their once prosperous ministry.

Upon release, the film struck a nerve for its explicit indictment of the particular brand of evangelism- think plenty of showmanship, flashy wardrobes and outsize influence- that America has successfully exported to other parts of the world.

In the week leading up to their big reopening, the Childs hire a film crew to document their big comeback. So much of the film’s humour is derived from this situation as the Childs engage with and perform for the cameras.

Underneath their extravagant, carefully coiffed packaging lies a storm of corruption and deception. The onus is then on the mostly unseen film crew to filter out more genuine or unguarded moments beyond the controlled narrative.

It is performed on several levels, especially for the actors. Ebo talks through navigating these complexities with The Africa Report: “Sometimes what you portray outwards is different from what you are feeling emotionally. We would break down where the characters are at any given moment in time – at the point the cameras are on, when they are getting a little tired of the cameras, when they are absolutely broken, then to the point when they are so out of themselves that they don’t even remember that the cameras are there. I think the actors found a perfect way to thread those nuances. It felt very real.”

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul adopts the mockumentary format, bringing the audience in on the joke at the expense of its protagonists.

But the director stresses that there is a more complex reading of the film to be found. Ebo talks a bit more about her process: “I was super interested in the idea of what is real and what isn’t. We were insistent on drawing this line between mockumentary and what we are calling faux documentary. In mockumentary format, the camera tends to be in on the joke. We wanted this to also feel like a real documentary and for the camera to be purely observational. So, if something funny is happening it is because the situation is funny not because the camera is joking.”

‘Unnatural to not work together’

The odds of landing a first feature at Sundance are very slim but thanks to the support of Ebo’s identical twin sister and producing partner, Adanne, it has been feasible- and less lonely.

The sisters share all of their ideas and work together instinctively to realise their projects. Work for them is seamless and feels like an extension of an already stable bond. Adanne shares: “It feels more unnatural for us to not be working together so there is kind of a shorthand on another level. We have been a partnership all of our lives and this is the only dynamic we have ever known.”

They scored a big breakthrough when Adamma was accepted to the Sundance Screenwriters Intensive with the script for Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul. There they met producing partners, including Oscar-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya who was shopping for projects for his 59% production company. Things developed rapidly.

Adanne offers some insight: “I will also say that you can get your first film into Sundance without doing the labs or artist programmes but you need to have the right support and financiers.”

The sisters both run Ejime Productions- named after the Igbo language word for twins- and on the heels of Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul, recently signed a multi-year overall deal with 20th Television and 20th Television Animation studios to develop live-action and animated programming.

Beyond these symbolic nods to their heritage, they say they feel strongly connected and are in the process of fortifying their existing relationship with Nigeria.

Born to a first-generation Nigerian American father and an American mother, the sisters grew up Southern Baptist, steeped in Atlanta’s Pentecostal church culture. They also interacted regularly with friends and family from other denominations and observed firsthand the influence of the Black church in their communities.

Visual celebration

Raised at home to question as many societal structures as they could, they observed how leadership in those churches often went unchecked. “That’s what really sparked our interest: unchecked power within that type of institution,” says Adanne.

Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul is a visual celebration of a specific culture and is peopled with characters who feel eerily familiar, especially for anyone who has ever had stints with organised religion. They put on their finest clothes- bright colours are a motif- and put their best foot forward for Sunday service even when their inner lives might be crumbling.

According to Adamma these choices stem from observing and celebrating how Black people in the (American) South take ownership of their church culture.

She shares: “Sunday’s best is something that people in the south take seriously. I wanted the film to feel vibrant and bold because the tone gets pretty dark, and I wanted that contrast. Also, for folks like the Childs, their looks are a depiction of wealth, luxury and social standing. But also a symbol of what is at stake and what they could lose.”

Everyone can relate to stuff like power or greed but Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul goes one further, embracing a cultural specificity that presents visually. The title for instance has become regular in Christian ministration, with church faithful holding up signs on the highway asking motorists to hoot their horns in solidarity.

For the film’s climax, Hall’s Trinitie is doing full-on praise mime face makeup. Her face is powdered white while she dances energetically to gospel music.

Adanma is not worried that the cultural specifics of the film might be alienating for audiences. She explains why: “I think so much of the film is universal emotionally that the very specific elements can be researched or gleaned on rewatch. That is what I have done with all of my favourite films, and I think that is part of what is cool about the medium of film.

Adanne echoes this assessment, adding: “If we didn’t have the quirks or cultural specificities then it wouldn’t feel true. Some people might not get every single tiny little specific cultural detail, but that is okay. It is an opportunity to open up conversations and that is probably what we want.”

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