Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
An IMDB comment compared this film to HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones (2019), which is a satire about a dysfunctional and corrupt megachurch. When it comes to stories about the wives of popular televangelists who become embroiled in sex scandals, some might compare this film to the recent Oscar-winning The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021). That film was more of a drama, though some satirical bits were a part of it. It had some commentary about how megachurch leaders have these opulent lifestyles, often seeming as if they’re exploiting their congregations. However, this film, written and directed by Adamma Ebo, adapting her own 2018 short film, is more in the vein and tone of comedy shows, such as The Office (2005) or Parks and Recreation (2009).
It’s essentially a mockumentary. The difference is that it centers on African-American characters and it centers on a Black church. It would be as if the recent Emmy-nominated Abbott Elementary (2021) decided to be about a religious institution instead of an elementary school. It’s clear that Ebo has a very critical eye on churches and there’s a humorous tone where she is trying to point out the problems within them. Yet, there also feels as though there is an understanding and reverence for the church too.
Regina Hall (Girls Trip and The Best Man) stars as Trinitie Childs, the wife of the Atlanta megachurch’s pastor. She’s described as the First Lady. She’s there to support her husband as he leads the congregation and perform community outreach. She shares and echoes his values. She loves him unconditionally. However, she’s akin to Tammy Faye Bakker in that her husband gets embroiled in a sex scandal. Unlike The Eyes of Tammy Faye or something like The Good Wife (2009), Trinitie doesn’t seem to have any ambitions or career aspirations of her own. She’s probably even more traditional in that she wants to remain the First Lady and stay in the role of supportive wife.
It’s not clear if the film believes that her desire to remain in her role as “wife” and nothing more is a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s clear that it is a choice that she made and wants. Ebo is scratching the surface because the film doesn’t dig into the sexist and feminist issues that The Eyes of Tammy Faye does. That 2021 Oscar-winner delved more into the protagonist’s life and fleshed her out than this film does. There is one scene that Trinitie has with her mother but The Eyes of Tammy Faye gave us more than one scene with the protagonist’s mother. However, this film does reveal the frustrations and tensions that can come from a woman in this First Lady role. Hall’s performance sells it well and in a more subtle and nuanced way than Jessica Chastain in The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us and The People v. O. J. Simpson) co-stars as Lee-Curtis Childs, the aforementioned pastor who is the subject of a sex scandal. He’s the equivalent to Jim Bakker. The Eyes of Tammy Faye is based on a true story, so there’s a lot of information that is already known that people could bring into that film. Even still, that film did spell out what the scandal was. There was some opaqueness with the issues of sexuality. That’s mainly because the film was told from the wife’s perspective. That’s not the case here. Lee-Curtis’ perspective is very much present here. Yet, this film remains rather opaque as to what the scandal actually was.
From some details that get dripped out, one can assume that this film is perhaps inspired by the real-life scandal against Bishop Eddie L. Long. Long was accused of coercing underage boys into a sexual relationship and possibly embezzled money from his church to do it by enticing the boys with cars, clothes, jewelry, and electronics. For the majority of this film’s runtime, the details of what Lee-Curtis did aren’t explored. The circumstances are dripped out and from what can be gathered, it feels similar to Bishop Long, but the film makes a point to underline that what Lee-Curtis did wasn’t criminal, meaning he didn’t have sex with minors.
Yet, if that’s true, then it’s not clear what the lawsuit against him is. Lee-Curtis is the one who says he didn’t do anything criminal. Perhaps, he’s lying, but the film doesn’t distinguish if he is or not. If he’s not, then it’s not clear what the lawsuit is. If Lee-Curtis simply had sex with young people who were still consenting adults outside his marriage, that’s not enough to carry a lawsuit. For example, in addition to accusations of being gay, Jim Bakker was accused of solicitation and raping a woman. Both of which are illegal. Being gay by itself isn’t, so how could anyone sue Lee-Curtis for it? Beyond his being a repressed homosexual, this film never makes it clear what Lee-Curtis’ supposed crimes were.
In a way, that is in itself a commentary or criticism of the church. This idea of the church sweeping things under the rug like homosexuality and not addressing certain root issues. The Catholic Church faced similar criticism when priests were accused of child sex abuse and the Catholic Church swept that under the rug or didn’t address the root issues until exposed in the media, such as the case in Spotlight (2015). If this film is about how the church sweeps things under the rug, then that would be a fascinating aspect to depict or explore. Yet, the film didn’t feel wholly satisfying because I think this film is possibly guilty of the very thing it’s supposedly satirizing.
Brown gives an incredible performance as a man who is vainglorious and ostentatious who masks it in religious devotion and a savior complex, a complex that is probably fueled by his repressed homosexuality. A scene inside a basketball court demonstrates that brilliantly and provides Brown with more Oscar-worthy material for a nomination. However, Hall is the standout as a Black woman burdened and put upon to smile and keep things together, despite pressure and overwhelming scrutiny. One of the funniest, if most satirical scenes is one where Trinitie runs into a former congregant and it’s all about her smiling through something awkward and uncomfortable, while maintaining her Southern charm, hospitality and manners, even in the face of gaslighting insults.
The film wants to be sympathetic toward Trinitie. When she proclaims herself the victim, there is an aspect of the film that is on her side. Yet, there is an aspect of rolling its eyes at her too. She could be also condemned along with Lee-Curtis for the alleged abuse that happened against the boys who were suing Lee-Curtis. It’s difficult to square that because again the film is never clear about what the alleged abuse actually was. It’s not even clear if Trinitie agrees with her husband’s homophobic rantings.
Austin Crute (They/Them and Booksmart) plays Khalil, one of the boys suing Lee-Curtis. He only appears in one scene, which is a shame. If this film was based on the Bishop Long scandal, then more than likely the character of Khalil was inspired by Spencer LeGrande. At the time of the scandal, LeGrande either couldn’t or didn’t speak about the case. There has since been TV interviews where LeGrande has talked about the case. Not a lot was revealed in those interviews, but this film could have been a vehicle for LeGrande’s story, even in a fictionalized way. Here, Khalil is simply used as an instrument of anger, which is valid but cliché. TV series like Greenleaf (2016) and Saints & Sinners (2016) have handled stories about the Black church better.
Rated R for language and sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.
In theaters and on Peacock.