Telling the Untold Story

February 4, 2008 | 25 comments
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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.

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25 Responses to Telling the Untold Story

  1. Ray on February 4, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    Thanks, Kaimi.

    Again, thanks to Margaret and Darius. I am looking forward to this DVD more than any other I can remember.

  2. Kaimi Wenger on February 4, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    I just uploaded a few pictures that I took at the premiere, and they’re at http://picasaweb.google.com/kaimipono/NobodyKnows/ .

  3. David G. on February 4, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks, Kaimi.

  4. Timburriaquito on February 4, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    I was there at the San Diego screening as well. The theatre was packed almost to capacity. Before the movie the lobby was very crowded with people waiting to get in. For some reason, they didn\’t open the door to the theatre until right at 5PM, and we were listening to another group of filmmakers discussing their film about black youth and the hip-hop community. At first there were a lot of other African-Americans standing around listening to the speakers, but as it got closer to 5:00 the crowd had more and more anglo-american looking people.

    I saw actor Glynn Turman in the crowd, who is on the HBO show \”The Wire.\” Also, in the parking garage, I saw Nichelle Nichols trying to figure out what level her car was on! I helped her as best I could, and my wife and I wanted to say something admiring to her since we\’re Star Trek fans, but it didn\’t seem appropriate (and I couldn\’t remember her real name. I didn\’t want to call her Lieutenant Uhura!)

    As for my impressions of \”Nobody Knows,\” I posted a few little things on BCC.

  5. Christopher on February 4, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for the review.

  6. Nate Fuller on February 4, 2008 at 7:40 pm

    I was also at the film and left inspired. At some point most black members of the church have to deal with past statements and attitudes. It was inspiring to see those featured in the documentary looking towards the future with optimism, rather than dwelling on the difficult past. I highly recommend the film.

  7. Steve Evans on February 4, 2008 at 7:42 pm

    Excellent work Kaimi.

  8. Ben on February 4, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    Thanks for this, Kaimi. This only makes me more excited to see it.

  9. J. on February 4, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    celebrated 27 yrs as a Black convert last month – much has changed since then, some things still the same – one thing I WISH would change is some of the uber discussions about Blacks in the Church. The part that disturbs me most is the reaching, reaching, reaching to find an acceptable answer to “critics” of the Priesthood ban. Never thought a definitive answer would come in my lifetime, as I believed prior to and after my baptism that it is one of the areas of a “testing of faith”, both for Blacks and those who are not. Given the PC nature of the time we live in, anything but the answer “because the Church was bigoted” seems to not be acceptable….I bow my head to those people who could not hold the Priesthood in their lifetime, but remained faithful, and full of faith, members of the Church. I bow my head also, to all those who prayed the MOST earnestly for the lifting of that ban who were not Black….

  10. Margaret Young on February 4, 2008 at 9:11 pm

    Kaimi–thank you so much for coming. I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you longer at the event. I was being pulled in many directions. I have to agree with you about the production issues. The DVD version we showed at Orem’s Scera had sharp images and sound. Darius and I instantly noticed a difference in the Beta tape (which was the only option the SDBFF gave us). I kept noticing little things, like that I couldn’t read some of the text under Elijah Abel’s photograph. Darius kept shaking his head. (Btw, if you got in for the Jane Manning James material, you missed a lot of the discussion of Elijah Abel.) But other than being disappointed that the images weren’t as sharp as what we’re used to seeing in the film, we were so gratified at the support we got from you and others. I think you independently got a good part of our crowd there, Kaimi. THANK YOU.

    I was going to tell you what will be included in the special features. Maybe I’ll tell you later. (I’ve already sent the time codes to our editor for the first pass.) Instead, I want to pay tribute to President Thomas S. Monson.

    Years ago, several of us from Genesis had lunch with a rather bitter descendant of Jane James. She said that there was only one LDS man she really respected: Thomas S. Monson. She trusted him. The story she told was this: Her father, Monroe Fleming, an African American Mormon, was aged and in poor health. Elder Monson gave instructions that regardless of where he was, if Brother Fleming were to pass, he (Elder Monson) would come home at once. Indeed, when Monroe Fleming neared death, Elder Monson was in some distant location, and was contacted. True to his word, he came home immediately. He spoke at Monroe Fleming’s funeral.

    Kaimi, the woman with us is the daughter of Monroe and Frances Fleming. Her name is Louise Washington (and she’s not the bitter daughter, who has now died.) Louise was present when her father was ordained to the priesthood in 1978, and told us she has his certificate of ordination. As we talked about who would take over the helm of the Church, she referred to Thomas Monson fondly. (Neither she nor Louis Duffy is LDS.) (The man from Atlanta is Ted Whiters.)

    As we flew home, I asked Darius for a few details of the meetings he, Ruffin Bridgeforth, and Gene Orr had had with Elders Hinckley, Monson, and Packer (then junior apostles) prior to the establishment of Genesis. (The group had met twice monthly over six months to determine how to best support members of African descent.) Darius told me that each of the Black men was paired with an apostle, and he was paired with Thomas S. Monson. It was Elder Monson who set him apart as Brother Bridgeforth’s counselor. In fact, Darius saw Pres. Monson only a few days before President HInckley’s death, and they reminisced about those meetings.

    I’ll also say, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, that the only emotional moment for me during the San Diego screening was when President Hinckley appeared, speaking the powerful words he spoke at the priesthood session of April Conference, 2006. (I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks about those of another race can consider himself a disciple of CHrist, nor can his consider himself in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ…) We screened the film just hours after that dear man was laid to rest.

  11. Kevin Barney on February 4, 2008 at 10:39 pm

    I appreciate the review, Kaimi.

  12. mmiles on February 5, 2008 at 1:32 am

    Thanks Kaimi. I can’t wait until it makes its way north.

  13. sol on February 5, 2008 at 1:37 am

    Any idea when it might be out on DVD? I have so been looking forward to this, but I doubt it will make it to a location near me.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on February 5, 2008 at 9:08 am

    …like well-meaning folks telling Tamu Smith how beautiful she’ll be in the Celestial Kingdom, when her skin becomes white.

    I had a mission companion who would make lascivious jokes about Whitney Houston along exactly these lines.

  15. Randy B. on February 5, 2008 at 11:32 am

    What a great review. I can’t wait to see this. Thanks also, Margaret, for the additional thoughts. I love Ted Whiters — he’s a great guy.

  16. jjohnsen on February 5, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    “in Q&A, Darius spoke of one congregation in the south which recently tried to expel its Black members.”

    !!!!? What?

  17. jrl on February 5, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    Kaimi: Thanks so much for the review. I wish that I lived somewhere that it will be showing. There are plenty of Mormons in Mesa – perhaps a screening there? I will email and call all of my friends to tell them to come…
    I can hardly wait to see this film. I sent a link to the trailer to my parents and siblings and they were all impressed. I really hope that PBS will pick this up. It seems like the kind of programming that viewers would be interested in.
    One random question, since the world is so small – On my mission in Oakland, I remember a wonderful African American brother that helped the missionaries every chance he could. He was blind and he had been a member since before 1978, I think. He had served a mission and he was always ready to help us. Salt of the Earth. I cannot remember his name. Does he sound familiar to anyone here?

  18. Margaret Young on February 5, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Well, as long as we’re searching for people, we have been trying to find John Lamb, a jazz musician who played with Duke Ellington. I don’t know who the blind brother is, but I’m hoping someone can give you a lead. (I do have a friend in Oakland–a former Black Panther, now a temple sealer, who likely knows. I’ll e-mail him.) Does anyone know John Lamb? We had a lead that he lived in Sarasota, Florida, but we couldn’t find any more information on him.

    DVD–I’m guessing we’ll have it out by the end of June. We need to finish special features, then sound master and color correct them, then package. We will look for some kind of public television airing possibility.

  19. manaen on February 5, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    My fiancee and I enjoyed the screening in San Diego last Saturday. We enjoyed this films combination of candor and uplift.
    .
    My fiancee, a recent convert, believes that it’s good to become open about our history and she left more pleased with her membership. Darius’s comment upon meeting her, that she would like the Church more the longer she’s in it, added to her enjoyment.
    .
    We met an AA LDS from San Diego, convert of a couple years ago now reactivating, who found peace about BY’s comments in this film. He explained that it wasn’t because somebody had explained them but because somebody acknowledged them without blinking. I emailed him some articles and links about other Black LDS.
    .
    I also talked with the co-producer of a film about debt in the Black community. I told him that Model Minority — which had a posting in December about Blacks and the Church — recently had a post about the similiarities between crack and too-easy mortgages and jointly emailed him and the blog’s owner to introduce them.
    .
    The LDS African-American Association here in SoCal invited Louis Duffy, Jane Manning’s descendant, to participate in the 2/17 fireside about Black LDS pioneers in Long Beach. Here’s the flyer.
    .
    A couple suggestions for “Nobody Knows:”
    (1) I agree that a “more direct citation” of Elder McConkie’s “forget everything” quote would help. In a film about bringing clarity, having one of the interviewees paraphrasing Elder McConkie blunts the effect — maybe either have Marvin read McConkie’s words or cut to a video clip of McConkie speaking them.
    (2) Maybe another 10-15 minutes of content. This film is excellent, but I left feeling a little unsatisfied, teased by what I saw, thinking that we had skimmed the surface of the chapters but not quite getting enough. But, you easily could do an hour on each chapter’s content so maybe the current tease suffices for now.
    .
    In all, loved your work — eager for DVD to be available.

  20. Margaret Young on February 5, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks for your suggestions, Manaen. It was wonderful to meet you and your beautiful fiancee at the event.

    Of course, I thought about trying to find footage of Elder McConkie giving the “Forget everything…” talk, and even searched for it. I came up empty. Since it was given to Church employees at a CES fireside, I don’t know that it is accessible at all in video form. The other thing I was intensely aware of is that we show many LDS Church leaders–all of whom are familiar to Mormons, but not to the non-LDS audience. Because our objective is bridge-building, I tended to shy away from too much footage of OUR familiar faces. (In fact, in the 60-minute version, we lose several of them. We took out the chapter on the Genesis Group in that edit–as well as other material. The sixty-minute version is what we hope will air on PBS or the History Channel someday. They have strict time requirements.)

    We were rather brutal editors, aiming for something accessible to a wide audience. We don’t go into much depth at all about the some Church leaders’ opposition to Civil Rights (though we have that wonderful footage depicting protestors), as Kaimi noted. And there was some material I was CERTAIN would be in the DVD which didn’t make it to final cut. That all-important 1879 meeting to determine whether or not Elijah Abel could be endowed is not mentioned at all in the Documentary. That surprised even me, but I remember the day I realized it simply didn’t fit. Of course, it’ll be in the Special Features, but putting it into the documentary itself would have gotten us into some of the nitty-gritty of names and dates–lethal to many potential audience members. (“Who is Zebedee Coltrin? WHo’s Abraham Smoot? Am I supposed to remember these guys and everyone else too?) Though we have Greg Prince talking at length about President McKay and the discussions of doctrine/policy, we edited a lot of that when there were too many names for the audience to keep track of.

    I think what you as an audience member should come away with is a sense of the generally unknown history of Blacks in the LDS Church, a sense of the evolution of the priesthood restriction and its undergirding teachings, a sense of the Mormon worldview (including the importance of revelation), and a sense that though challenges remain, there are many remarkable modern Black pioneers. I think you get to know some amazing people–Tamu, Darius, Ted, etc. They are really the soul of the film.

  21. Jim Larsen on February 5, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Margaret,

    It appeared in your comments regarding the show on The Juvenile Instructor that you were interested in tracking down Gene Orr. I don’t know exactly where he lives now, but I could find out. He lived in Barrhead, Alberta until a few years ago. While serving a mission in Alberta I spent many a wonderful Sunday afternoon in his home.

  22. Margaret Young on February 5, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    We’re in contact with Gene Orr. It’s John Lamb I’d really like to find. Thanks Jim!

  23. manaen on February 6, 2008 at 11:58 pm

    Another person you may want to find is Sheryl Lynn Townsend, as she then was called. I knew her as an African-American LDS student at BYU a few years before the Revelation. I still have, somewhere, the copy she gave me of her poem, “I Will Wait.”

  24. tyler on February 7, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Margaret–

    It sounds wonderful, I’m so excited to see it. I assume you’ll post information on how to order the DVD when it comes out, yes? Also, is it going to play anywhere on the East Coast? One final question, which myabe you can answer more authoratatively because of your research. My impression is that, for the majority of the Church, the announcement of the Revelation in 1978 was not just a major revelation, and not just exciting, but a day of real rejoicing–i.e. spontaneously embracing in the streets and honking your horn on main street in Provo. Is that pretty accurate? I know there were some people who were, unfortunately, slow to accept the news, but, on a whole, is my perception accurate? That has always been my understanding. I hope it is correct.

  25. Margaret Young on February 7, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    We had to make a hard decision yesterday. We’ve had so many people requesting screenings for one event or another, and we’ve finally decided that since we don’t want the DVD out in public where it is simply too easy to copy, we’re saying no to all screening invitations unless one of us (Darius, one of our reps, or I) is present. So we’re submitting to various film festivals around the country. That way, the theater is provided (we don’t have to rent it), the projection is professional, and the seats are comfortable and can accommodate large crowds. There’s a chance we’ll get on the east coast–or nearby. I’ll let you know!

    As for the news of the revelation–I don’t think honking horns were part of the day, but embraces certainly were. I was in Mexico City and heard the news from my bishop’s wife, who was weeping from joy. I think the joy was more private than public, and rather restrained in a lot of cases. Lots of tears and hugs.

    Manaen, what year was Shefyl Lynn Townsend at BYU? She’s probably about my age. I’d love to see the poem.

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