Adamma Ebo and Adanne Ebo on HONK FOR JESUS, SAVE YOUR SOUL – Leslie Combemale interviews
With the filmmaking Nigerian-American Ebo twins, cinematic invention and output is all in the family. Adamma is the writer/director of new narrative satire Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul, which just premiered at Sundance 2022, for which Adanne is producer. Adanne Ebo explains, in an interview with AWFJ.org contributor Leslie Combemale, she also acts as sounding board and creative partner every step of the filmmaking process. It’s a partnership that works well, judging by the film, which beautifully maintains tonal consistency while riding the razor’s edge between dark comedy and poignant drama.
The story is about mega-church paster Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his first lady Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) who have had to close Wander to Greater Paths Church, once a weekly home to thousands of congregants, as a result of a scandal involving Lee-Curtis. They hope to reopen to positive press by having a documentarian and her crew follow them as they work to rebuild their flock. Timing is particularly urgent, since younger co-pasters Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance and Nicole Beharie) are absorbing their former congregants so fast, they’re having to build a bigger church to accommodate them. Honk for Jesus is a smart, insightful examination of commodified Christianity by a filmmaking team quickly rising in renowned and demand. Combemale spoke to Adamma and Adanne Ebo about working together to create this worthy platform for the considerable talents of both Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown.
Leslie Combemale: Honk For Jesus, in part, examines the loose nature of truth, in both how documentaries are always meant to be representative of the truth. What role did the relativity of truth play in terms of telling this story?
Adamma Ebo: The goal was to chat about what’s true, what’s not true, and all the nebulous, gray areas in between. Specifically, with a lot of black church culture, the truth is often shifted in order to provide some sort of protection, or in order to go along with the status quo. I wanted that sort of uncertainty to to be a prominent feeling in the film.
LC: Adamma, you are credited as the writer and director, and Adanne, you have a producer credit. How do you guys work together? A How does the he whole thing comes together with the two of you as sort of in a partnership?
Adanne Ebo: We’re kind of in lockstep in a lot of ways. Adamma was the director and the writer for Honk for Jesus, but we make a lot of creative decisions together. It’s like a really familial sounding board. We talked through script changes, I read every single draft of the script, gave very comprehensive notes, and I was involved in every day of the post-production process, from editing to sound to color. So it’s really just a constant conversation between us creatively.
LC: And in terms of being the producer, how are bouncing off each other and making sure that the tone stays consistent? It had to be in flow or the tone wouldn’t have worked. In this kind of film it feels like something that needed to be shepherded every step of the way. As the producer, how are you looking to make sure that it stays kind of on track?
Adanne: It’s just a constant check and balance. If Adamma adjusted something in the script, I would question how it then still gelled with how the rest of the story was going. So we had those internal checks and balances really naturally because, you’re right, if certain things didn’t gel together, then the tone wouldn’t work, and Adamma is really good at tone, but it’s helpful to have someone there to serve as an outside perspective.
Adamma: And I was really good about being saying, “Things are getting pretty heavy here. Where’s the room for some comedy or levity to even out that tone?
LC: You’ve created a wonderful character in Trinitie, brought to life by Regina Hall. What was the process of building her and bringing her to the screen in partnership with Regina?
Adamma: It was definitely a journey building Trinitie. I think I went through various stages of first, super not liking her and viewing her as a villain, to coming to be more empathetic with her as a character, and realizing that, like what I was saying like this question about truth, there could be this duality, and she could both be complicit in a lot of things, but also be a victim of her circumstance, and coming to realize that deserves some empathy. Working with Regina was amazing. She got it immediately. She was very insistent on finding herself as that character, and living as this person. And I feel like you can see it onscreen. She’s very much Trinitie Childs.
LC: It’s interesting that her name is Trinitie, when you’re thinking about, in terms of religion, and Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Women universally are expected to be all things. And I thought that was a really interesting aspect. Regina did bring that to the table in terms of how she could switch on a dime and she was constantly checking herself, whereas her husband rarely called upon himself to do that.
LC: How much was that was intentional, and an underpinning of Trinitie’s makeup as a character, this idea of of Trinitie of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, all of which are seen as male-gendered?
Adamma: It was definitely supposed to be indicative of that. We see it later on in the film, when she has a conversation with her mother, how steeped in her religion she is and was raised to be, so much so that her mother chose that sort of name. It’s definitely supposed to mean that women are expected to do and be all for everyone and everything. And also we’re American Nigerians, and it was also referencing this thing that Nigerians tend to do, which is name their children Christian things that aren’t necessarily a name, so like not necessarily…
Adanne: Peter or Paul or Mary…
Adamma: Yeah, you’ll get like a Hallelujah, or Glory or…
Adamma: There are a lot of Blessings. So I thought that could be an interesting way to incorporate that.
LC: I will watch everything Sterling K Brown is ever in. There’s an amazing speech he does towards the end of the film I’d love to hear about that. It was both beautifully written and delivered.
Adamma: Oh, thank you. I definitely wanted to show both sides of what I was trying to say with the film, which is this commentary and critique of organized religion, coupled with the fact that it is very real and very beautiful to a lot of people, including myself. So I have the sermon at the very top of the film, where it’s more bombastic and he’s talking about his suits, and he talks about his beautiful wife and his Bugatti, then ‘The Perfect Man’ sermon is truly personal and introspective in a way and vulnerable in a way that I think was definitely needed to humanize Lee-Curtis, but also show that duality that two things can exist at once. Actually it all came very natural to me, the sermon writing. It’s, I guess, because I’ve sat through enough church services. Filming it with Sterling was interesting. There are so many different versions of it. What became very integral was nailing the emotional switches. I would talk to him and I would say, “Okay, this time when you get here, it’s breaking your heart.” And then I’d say, “This time when you get here, you found the joy again.” Then you see the emotional rollercoaster that he’s going through when he’s in real time and delivering the sermon.
LC: He believes what he’s saying. He believes he’s delivering and healing people. That’s part of the interesting dichotomy of organized religion and this commodified Christianity that has become pervasive. God and religion should not be a competition, but it certainly is part of this story in terms of the Childs and the Sumpters.
Adamma: I mean, for better for worse, organized religion is a business. And within business, there’s always going to be competition, in some form or fashion. But I also was very interested in this idea of the newer generation versus the older generation and what that looks like. For the state of the church, how much more progressive are they being, and what’s different about them? What’s more appealing? What we found with our generation different things appeal to us about the church than what appealed our parents or grandparents.
LC: There are some great moments in the movie that capture how Black women, especially southern ones, speak to each other on two levels at once. The nice level and the one where they want to tear each other’s eyes out.
Adamma: It’s interesting, because it is very much in church culture, that no one, on their face, wants to be outwardly mean. I think that a lot of these people feel like they’re doing what’s best in the situation, but it’s just that culture. Christianity is built on love and tolerance, supposedly, and so that’s what people purport to be about. That’s the image that they want to project, even if that’s not what they’re actually doing. It’s very strange. Everyone immediately got it, because they’ve all had these experiences. I’ve seen my mama and my auntie be in these weird standoffs with other women in the congregation. There are these constant power dynamics playing out with people within organized religion, and a lot of the time it’s woman against woman. I’m sure a lot of time it’s like that because they don’t have the ability to be at the top, which is Pastor. That is changing. And Nicole Baharie’s character is a co-pastor. I think that Regina’s character feels some type of way about that. That wasn’t an option for her.
LC: As a former Catholic, I can definitely appreciate the idea that having a female co-pastor would make a huge difference as a woman, When Lee-Curtis calls Trinitie on her ego, ‘Edging God Out’, it’s really hypocritical, because in that particular moment, he’s asking her to do something he’s not willing to do himself. And it’s not an easy thing. It captures how women are asked to fix everything.
Adamma: I definitely came to it, because whether you’re a man or a woman or gender non binary, people ask things of people often that they don’t ask themselves. And I found that people often lack the introspection to realize that. The weight that that puts on someone is just tremendous, especially when you’re in any sort of relationship where you care about someone else. I really wanted that to be the last brick that was going to topple Trinitie, or that last Jenga piece that you pull out, was that she would never ask him to do something like that. I think she realizes in that moment, even though she ultimately decides to do it, that this dynamic is broken, even under the covenant of God, this does not work.
LC: The documentarian, Anita, is a female filmmaker. What were the discussions around that?
Adamma: There was not a crazy amount of discussion about that.
Adanne: She was always a woman.
Adamma: I think it’s because there was a time where I felt like I was the documentary, and that this was my perspective. When women are under a lens curated by another woman, the conversation is different.
Adanne: I think Anita is judging her. or starts out judging her.
Adamma: I find that women tend to find the empathy a little more. It’s not just examination, it’s about asking, “What is the emotion behind this?” Because I want Trinitie to be empathetic, despite her shortcomings, it made sense to me for her to be a woman.
LC: Also, both Trinitie and the Anita seem to be stripping away the nonsense, the bullshit, whatever you want to call it. They’re going to try to live with as little of that as possible.
Adamma: There’s a reason why they both reach their breaking point at the same time. Trinitie, when she explodes, she is at a very specific point in her journey. When Anita first speaks, and it’s the first time she speaks the entire film, it’s at that exact same point. It’s because all the bullshit has just gotten to be too much.
LC: Some people think that something is satirical, that it’s supposed to be funny the whole time, and I think it’s completely the opposite of that. In Honk For Jesus, you find a way to keep the tone consistent, even as it bounces back and forth between intense and dark, and really funny. Can you talk about collaborating with editors Stacy moon and Allie Greer to find that balance through performance and editing to make that tone work?
Adanne: Adamma is the type of director where she’ll get several takes of one scene with different or varying emotions, so, when we were building the film in the edit, we really had to determine where we wanted emotional touchstones to change, and where we were finding those shifts. I mean, it was work, really. It was a constant conversation between us and our editors, Stacy and Allie, about where that shift should happen? And then finding the right tape to accompany the shift.
Adamma: It was definitely a tight rope.
LC: How much improvisation did Regina and Sterling do?
Adamma: A lot!
Adanne: The vast majority of it is on the page, but I think the reason why the improv worked so well is is because of Sterling and Regina’s relationship to their own faith, and to the subject matter, that when they did improvise, we could just weave it seamlessly into what was already written.
Adamma:A good example of it is when Lee-Curtis says, “This is ego.” That’s written, but Sterling added, “You know what ego stands for? Edging God out.” He improv’d that, and I thought it was beautiful and perfect.
LC: What are some other examples of improvisation?
Adanne: During the montage when they’re on the side of the road, and Regina is giving an interview in the church. She says, “We always make it work.” That’s where the script usually ends the dialogue, but then she goes, “you know, lika a dynamic duo, like Batman and Robin.” And then she goes, “No wait. That’s two guys.” That was improv.
Adamma: Almost Regina’s entire segment at the very opening of the film is improv, and I just fell in love with it. What’s on the page is about how everyone doesn’t understand what it takes to be a first lady. Once we cut to her actually talking, when she says, “You ever seen a rat run from the inside of the house to the outside of the house?” That’s improv.
LC: It’s because they inhabit their characters so fully that it flows from that.
Adanne: Adamma doesn’t call cut after the line, after what’s written on the page. She doesn’t just call cut.
Adamma: I let the scene breathe and live on, and I think you get amazing nuances and performers either with what they’re saying, or what their faces do, and I think it’s beautiful.
LC: The costumes and the hats are just so spectacular in this film and add so much to story.
Adanne: The costume design was very much reflective of how a lot of black folks go to church.
Adamma: Yeah. It’s a fashion show. We actually got surprised when people initially were asking us about the costume design, because we thought everybody knew that’s how you go to church.
Adanne: But definitely it adds to their characters. The amount of clothing, and the luxury of it is just indicative of the space that they have come to be in, and part of why they’re so desperate to get back.
LC: How do you think as women creating this film, were your perspective and insights uniquely brought to bear in Honk for Jesus?
Adanne: There’s a universality to the story and the subject matter, but there is an innate specificity to it, because our lead is a Black woman, and because we are black women, and because the relationship of Black women to the Black church specifically is very particular, and so I think because we are Black women who grew up in the Black church, we came with a very specific lens.
Adamma: Also decisions that we made in the film, like the ‘Knuck If You Buck’ scene, I can only imagine would come from a Black Southern person’s brain.
Adanne: Or even a scene between Trinitie and her mother, that’s a conversation that a lot of Black women have with their Black mothers. That’s definitely part of it. There are specific nuances that just feel innately Black that I think people are finding satisfying to see.
LC: What would you like people to walk away with having seen the film?
Adamma: I think that it’s not only okay to question things, particularly leadership in organized institutions, but that you should.
Adanne: I just want people to leave wanting to ask questions and wanting to think critically.