Last Saturday was the world premiere of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, at the San Diego Black Film Festival. (Though there was one earlier Utah screening; and a concurrent showing in Dallas.)
I attended with my wife and Son1. A couple of weeks earlier, I had e-mailed my bishop about the film. He was excited enough that he forwarded word on to ward members, the Stake President, and others.
We got there just a few minutes late (due to traffic, parking, and babysitting), so we missed the first five minutes or so. When we arrived, the ticket taker took one look at us and said, “you’re here for the Mormon film.” Yep. We scooped up our tickets and ran to the theater. It was packed.
When we arrived, the film was discussing Jane Manning James, the Black woman who was a convert in the very early days of the church. It was a powerful discussion, talking about Jane’s desire to receive temple blessings, and her plaintive letters to the Prophet about it.
The movie was very, very well done. There was a good deal of discussion about Elijah Abel, Jane Manning James, Green Flake, and others, plus Black members in modern times. The film covered slavery; the Civil Rights movement; BYU boycotts; the Genesis Group; the revelation; and continuing concerns (like well-meaning folks telling Tamu Smith how beautiful she’ll be in the Celestial Kingdom, when her skin becomes white).
The documentary didn’t cover a few areas that I thought it would. It didn’t discuss Jim Crow in Utah. It didn’t get into the opposition to the Civil Rights movement by some church leaders, especially then-Elder Benson, which I think still impacts church member thinking. And it didn’t discuss (that I saw, perhaps I missed it arriving late) some problematic church-leader statements about interracial marriage. Also, I think that it should have been more direct in citation to Elder McConkie’s “forget everything” quote. But those are relatively small concerns. Overall, the coverage of the topic was excellent. And the film had many strengths.
The material was excellent. The old interview footage with Paul was great — “these cats tellin’ me I can’t hold the priesthood.” Darius’s baptism story was powerful. Tamu Smith is a gem, and lit up the screen every time she appeared. The member from Atlanta — his name escapes me at the moment — gave simple, direct, thoughtful responses. There were great snippets of interview with the Rev. Chip Murray of the AME church (some of whose founders were ex-slaves from Utah).
Person after person — Armand Mauss, Newell Bringhurst, Tamu Smith, Darius Gray — hammered home the point that so much of general church member belief about the Priesthood ban, about fencesitters in the pre-existence, and so on, was folklore. Not doctrine, just folklore.
The historical material was great, with interesting discussion of Jane Manning James, Green Flake, Brigham Young. The historical context was well-done too, with discussion of Benjamin Morgan Palmer and other Protestant cursed-race theologians. (Actually, it kind of glossed over one minor point there — Palmer was really a curse-of-Ham person, not a curse-of-Cain person. There are some interesting and subtle differences between Palmer’s curse ideas and Brigham Young’s, which the film didn’t delve into at all.) The film also used President Hinckley’s talk against racism, to great effect.
The film’s production was good, but not perfect. Portions of the older footage sometimes appeared very blurry on the screen. The colors were washed out. (Darius said afterwards that some of this was from the transfer from DVD to Beta for the screening.) The music sounded good (and the use of Black spirituals was very well done), and the voices were good. The captioning was uneven — Armand Mauss had his institution (WSU) listed, but Newell Bringhurst just got “Emeritus Professor of History and Political Science” without an institution.
After the film, Darius, Margaret, Louis Duffy (Jane Manning James great-great-grandson), and another James descendant held a Q&A. Louis Duffy told the wonderful story about how the Jane Manning James material came to light. Two missionaries knocked on his door, and he told them that he had some family heirlooms from a great-grandmother who had come across the plains with Brigham Young. When he showed them the family documents, one missionary told him about I Am Jane (a play that Margaret wrote about Jane Manning James). He googled the play, found Margaret and Darius, and the rest was history. It was a really inspiring story.
Darius talked about ongoing concerns. The church as an institution and as a community has taken huge steps forward, but some problems remain. The film mentioned that some damaging statements from books like Mormon Doctrine (especially the older version) are still sometimes circulated, despite Elder McConkie’s later disclaimer. And there are instances of racism on a local level — in Q&A, Darius spoke of one congregation in the south which recently tried to expel its Black members. But as a whole, there has been great progress. Huge steps forward. And there’s other important work going on, in many places. I spoke with Marvin Perkins, who is releasing a new DVD with Darius about Blacks in the scriptures, which sounds wonderful.
(Wife was cheerfully patient as we talked with lots of people, and Son1 only rolled his eyes and said “can we go, now?” about ten times during the half-hour.)
I saw our bishop and his wife there, plus a few others from the stake. After the film, our bishop’s wife said that she had really enjoyed it, and that she didn’t know about the Black pioneers. And other ward members have asked about it since then. (Our babysitter asked what the film was about, when we went; and the next day, her parents asked us too.) I was excited to see the large turnout. (Margaret said they had to move us to a larger theater, because the interest in the film was so high; hopefully, this means more booking dates at other festivals.) The audience appeared to be about 50-50 black and white; I’m not sure how many attendees were church members. This kind of film, I think, is pioneering in multiple areas — it tells a little-known story to both the Mormon community and the Black community.
When it comes out on DVD, I know I’m going to order a copy; and hopefully, it will show on PBS some time. Also, I believe there’s a possibility that Sunstone West will screen the film; if so, I’m definitely going to tell people around here.
The film’s title, Nobody Knows, is an apt one. Very few people do know the story of Black Mormons. Hopefully, the storytelling of Darius, Margaret, and others can help fill that gap — and in the process, move our community towards greater acceptance of members of all races.