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Have you ever heard of praise miming?
It’s a style of praise dance popular in some Black churches, where performers swap lyrical movement for miming and often wear mimes’ traditional white face makeup. This form of worship plays a central role in “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul,” the Sundance stunner from identical twin sisters, writer-director Adamma and producer Adanne Ebo.
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Their film follows pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown) and his first lady Trinitie (Regina Hall) as they aim to rebuild their congregation after a scandal effectively closes their Atlanta megachurch, which maxed out around 26,000 worshippers. The pastor and first lady hire a documentary crew to chronicle their comeback, but the road to redemption — especially in the competitive business of corporatized and commodified Christianity — doesn’t prove easy.
In the 2018 short film of the same name, the couple stand on the side of the road holding a sign that says “Honk for Jesus,” hoping to draw attention from potential congregants. Eventually, Trinity applies white mime makeup and performs in a last ditch effort to draw more eyes.
“The making of the short was the first time that we realized that praise miming was not a universal concept. People thought we had made it up,” Adanne Ebo tells Variety over Zoom, sitting next to her sister Adamma and bouncing off each other as they recount the story behind their film, which is one of the hottest sales titles at the fest.
When Adamma Ebo workshopped the script for the short, which doubled as her UCLA masters thesis project, people would ask if she’d made up the dance style.
“During my thesis presentation, I pulled up YouTube videos and people were like, ‘Oh, my God,’” she recalls. “I can’t remember specifics about the first time I experienced praise miming, but I just know that I was terrified. I was like, ‘Why?’”
“I don’t even remember when praise miming became a thing, but there was a particular point in time where everyone was [doing it],” Adanne Ebo adds, pointing to their experience as undergrads at Spelman College in Atlanta, where many of their classmates performed the dance style in the talent portion of the competition.
But despite how disconcerting, uncanny and frankly frightening Adamma Ebo found the choreography, she had to have it in her movie. “This is something that I have to have, something that can happen to Trinity that is just going to up the ante,” she explains.
Adamma Ebo’s script was selected for the 2019 Sundance Screenwriting Intensive and named to the 2019 Hit List. Produced by Adanne Ebo, Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya’s production company 59% and Pinky Promise, the feature film shot last summer and wrapped principal photography exactly one month after the sisters’ 30th birthday. A few months later, they learned during a Zoom with Sundance organizers that the film had been selected for the 2022 lineup.
“They panned the computer around and there’s a roomful of 12 other people cheering and clapping for us — it was very sweet,” Adamma Ebo observes. “The goal had been to hopefully make it to Sundance, but the way that it happened, we were just very surprised.”
To celebrate, the Ebo sisters popped some champagne (the McBride Sisters’ Black Girl Magic sparkling brut) and listened to one of their favorite gospel songs, Fred Hammond’s “Let the Praise Begin,” which they’d also used as the final needle drop in their movie. “It felt appropriate,” Adanne Ebo says. “We grew up with that song.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The Ebo sisters were raised in the world of Southern Baptist mega-churches in Atlanta, graduating from Spelman college before Adamma Ebo headed to UCLA for a masters in directing and film production, while Adanne Ebo earned her law degree at Northwestern; the filmmaking duo, who create under their Ejime Productions banner, now live together in Los Angeles. Their filmmaking inspirations include such memorable creative duos as “Atlanta’s” Donald Glover and Stephen Glover and The Coen Brothers, as well as solo artists such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Hayao Miyazaki and Michaela Coel.
“The things that we really enjoy are things that run the tonal gamut,” Adamma Ebo notes.
That description would apply to “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul,” which is the “Bless your heart” version of calling bullshit on the often hypocritical systems that flow through megachurch culture and organized religion. Basically, it’s a “F You” to the system. But it doesn’t dismiss their good works, paying homage to the positive community-building aspects of the church.
“Our Southern Baptist upbringing was a huge influence in making the film, but that was coupled with our parents’ insistence that we questioned everything,” Adamma Ebo explains. “Despite our mom, in particular, being really steeped in the church, she’s also a scientist, so she’s like, ‘Question everything.’ And that’s what we started to do from very young age.”
The sisters weren’t willing to accept that “Harry Potter” was evil, even though the book’s spells didn’t work. Trust them, they tried to no avail. And they certainly weren’t going to give up their love for Halloween.
In short, Adamma Ebo says, it was the “blind faith” that she and Adanne found uncomfortable and, once she moved to Los Angeles and wasn’t attending church as regularly, she began to feel resentful toward and mildly annoyed by “the church.” Adamma later had a “come to Jesus” moment, realizing she wanted to stay connected.
“I’m a spiritual person. I still see the communal value of church,” she acknowledges. “That’s where the nuances of “Honk for Jesus” come from — there are all of these critiques and some blatant ‘Fuck You’s,’ while also being a love letter to this culture.”
It was important to the duo that the film didn’t caricature church life or the churchgoers who put on their Sunday best to look for something outside themselves each week. (To note: those color-coordinated suits and dresses with oversized hats are just part of the way of life for Black folks; it’s not overblown for the movie — not even the spider silk white hat with crystal beading that Trinitie wears.)
“There’s a ton about Southern Baptist mega-church culture that is just inherently funny. We didn’t need to necessarily caricature certain things to make it that,” Adanne Ebo says. “Our assistant editor asked us, ‘Do church people really say ‘Lord’ that much?’ And I replied, ‘I’ve called on the Lord, I don’t know how many times today.’ It’s just part of the vernacular, it’s part of the culture.”
Adds Adamma Ebo, “Black people know that and they rock with it.”
The idea for the movie came in two parts. When Adamma Ebo was a second-year student at UCLA, “Whiplash” duo Damien Chazelle and Tom Cross came to discuss their film’s journey from short to feature, inspiring the young filmmaker to attempt that route for an idea she’d had to write a church-centric feature. “Honk for Jesus” came into play when Adamma spotted someone on the side of a Georgia road holding a sign bearing that phase. She was immediately inspired, recognizing that’d be a great movie title and that getting her characters onto the roadside would make the perfect climax.
“I knew that would be the highest point of tension in the movie. I thought, ‘Why are they out there?’ and worked backward from that moment,” she shares.
The short film “Honk for Jesus” doubled as Adamma Ebo’s thesis project and a proof of concept for the feature, playing well on the film festival circuit, with a particularly memorable outing at the Atlanta Film Festival.
“We were honestly ready for a shitstorm,” Adanne Ebo admits. “Because people were calling out specific people that it could have been based on. We thought ‘Black people are going to come for us.’ But we were extremely surprised at the response and realized, ‘Maybe this will actually play well with our target demographic.’”
The project’s cultural impact grew when Montrel McKay, president of development and production at Issa Rae’s Hoorae, came calling in 2019, saying Rae wanted to feature the movie on the company’s #ShortFilmSundays program on Youtube.
“I know people say you should never read the comments, but we couldn’t help ourselves in this instance,” Adanne Ebo admits. “Everyone was like, ‘When’s Part Two coming out?’ or ‘I’m so glad that this is being talked about.’ That’s when we knew that it was going to be a thing.”
The Ebo sisters teamed up with 59% Productions’ Rowan Riley after meeting at a Sundance mixer, and linked up with Pinky Promise as financiers through UTA. During their first meeting with the 59% team (Riley, Kaluuya and Amandla Crichlow), Kaluuya asked who they imagined for Trinitie.
“I said a “Regina Hall-type” because I thought ‘There’s just no way it’s my first feature; I’m lucky anybody’s even shown an interest in making this,’” Adamma Ebo says, noting Hall’s talent for being “hysterically funny, but she can tap into those more dramatic moments and really make them sing.”
Fortunately for the filmmakers, Hall was interested and the search for Lee-Curtis began.
“We weren’t finding the right fit,” Adanne Ebo concedes. But once the sisters saw Brown’s Emmy-winning guest spot on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” they realized he was the actor they’d been searching for.
When Hall and Brown met for the first time, their chemistry was electric. Thanks to a lucky break in their schedules — a window just after Hall wrapped work in Australia on “Nine Perfect Strangers” and while Brown was on a break from “This is Us” — production was a-go.
The sisters’ first day on set filming in their Atlanta hometown was a bit surreal. Looking back on the moment she called “Action,” Adamma Ebo says, “It didn’t feel like it was really happening. We both are pretty calm people. We take things in stride. So, I was just [telling myself], ‘This is just a really long short, but people are giving you more money to do it.’”
“That was different,” Adanne Ebo cuts in. “In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that much money, but it was, compared to what we’d come from, we were like, ‘This is a lot. We can get Starbucks on set.’”
And, as much as the sisters and their movie might critique organized religion, filming it felt spiritual.
“[I thought,] ‘This is God doing His work.’ There’s no reason for me to have graduated film school in 2018, and by 2021, I’m making my first measure feature with Sterling K Brown and Regina Hall. That don’t make no sense,” Adamma Ebo recalls. “We put in work along the way, [but] I attribute so much of it to a higher power.”
The sisters have already written their second feature (their first written together, completed in a few weeks over quarantine using WriterDuet), in between booking big jobs on “Atlanta” (where Adamma made her television directing debut with a season four episode), as well as Glover’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” series for Amazon and HBO Max/Cartoon Network’s “Batman: Caped Crusader.” They also have a hour-long live-action series and a half-hour adult animated series they’re aiming to sell.
“We’re just trying to have fun and play in all the worlds that we loved growing up,” Adanne Ebo says, as Adamma adds. “We’re addicted to the creation.”
“Honk for Jesus, Save You Soul” debuts Sunday, Jan. 23 at the Sundance Film Festival.
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