(LDS) Black History Month revisited

In a post last February I raised the question of what kind of literature exists about the black Mormon experience. I got some great answers and decided to get my hands on some of it. Life conspired against me and I haven’t done as much as I’d hoped but I am now the proud owner of the Standing on the Promises series (I got them all in hardback for less than $20!) and I gathered a group of friends to watch the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. I haven’t finished reading the books yet and I wanted to write a formal review of the film, but I’m not a film critic so I didn’t. But I do want to plug the movie and share some of my thoughts regarding it.

(Here’s a link to the trailer. Couldn’t figure out how to embed it. Also, here’s a link to Darius Gray and Margaret Young talking about the film.)

I got the film through interlibrary loan (a literary Mormon mommy’s best friend!!) and facebooked anyone else I thought would be interested in watching it. Lots of people were interested, but only a few friends were interested enough to clear out time to come watch it.

The good stuff about the movie:

* It had a lot of good historical information that, for me, reframed the issue of blacks and the priesthood. Call me ill-informed, seminary and institute graduate that I am, but I had never heard of Elijah Abel or Jane Manning James. To my mind their stories show that this has never been a simple case of prejudice or Old South paternalism. I always felt the question was not adequately addressed by the one seminary video on the second Official Declaration. It also can’t be explained away in one nay-saying, Mormon-hating diatribe. This is a complicated issue and No One Knows does a good job of embracing the complicated nature of the question.

*It also had a lot of good info on how the Church interacted with the modern civil rights movement. I had heard of the Genesis Group only in passing and to find out it was actually sponsored by the Church and came about through a group of black men working with white priesthood leaders was inspiring to me. So often, it seems, Church members who are struggling with very real disaffecting issues think their priesthood leaders don’t want to hear about it. The Genesis Group suggests that maybe they do. And maybe they can help.

*The MUSIC! Wow. I love me a good spiritual. There is something about that soulfulness that makes me tremble–in a good way. The music in the film is great. However, it did make my next sacrament meeting seem a little dry. . .

*All the personal interviews were another highlight for me. This movie doesn’t spend too much time constructing a sweeping historical time line. Instead it tells stories of individuals and honors their experiences. For me, this is the most authentic type of literature out there. The film definitely has a pro-LDS bias, but I was okay with that because well, I’m pro-LDS and because I think on a meta level this film is the story of how Darius Gray reconciled his strong feelings of the Church’s truth with the real-life difficulties he faced as a black man in the Church. Gray, and Young, are obviously thoughtful, kind people and this film evokes both those things.

The not-so-good: (I would call this section the bad, but I don’t think any of these things were bad. Just shortcomings.)

*The length. The film is only 73 minutes long. Its list of deleted scenes and unused material is almost as long as the film itself and is full of interesting tidbits–the one about the Dialogue article that epitomized the policy debate and the stories of LDS interracial couples are the two most memorable in my mind. It made me sad that the producers/directors didn’t/couldn’t find a way to include more of that stuff in the main body of the film. Leaving all that material out detracted from the richness of the rest of the film.

*Vague citations. For all of the great info this movie has it doesn’t really provide any concrete way of following up on these issues. The film used lots of quotations from Church leaders that seemed to be pulled out of thin air. In my mind it matters if a Brigham Young quotation came from his personal journal or an address to the US government or the Journal of Discourses. Especially on an issue like this where part of what is at stake is the Church’s institutional image and policies. If a central question to the discussion of black and the priesthood is “Was the ban a doctrine or was it a policy?” where and how Church officials said things becomes extremely important. I have no doubt that the filmmakers did their research; I just wish it had been more transparent. When quoting someone most documentaries include citations in small print at the bottom of the screen. I’m not sure why this film didn’t.

*The art. The documentary includes shots of some beautiful memorials and sculptures about the black LDS experience but NEVER tells you where they are. I want to know if they are somewhere in the south or if I can stop by and see some in person next time I’m in Utah. They also didn’t give credit to the artists (at least not that I saw) of those works. (It occurs to me as I write this that maybe all the sculptures are tombstones? If so, that would explain some of it. . .) Also, I think the film could have been enriched if it had included other forms of art by black LDS artists. Maybe there isn’t a lot out there to use or maybe there simply wasn’t enough money. But I wish some of that stuff had been included.

*The question of audience. Like I hinted at before, this film is an important piece of the puzzle for me when it comes to race issues and my religion. It doesn’t have all the answers. If anything I have more questions now than I did before. But they are new questions and new pathways of thinking and I feel like the film didn’t anticipate that. I feel like the filmmakers were talking to people who had lived it and just needed a little catharsis. This seemed true for the group I watched the film with. Of the six of us who showed up I was the only one who was not alive when the policy change occurred. (My husband, who is six years older than me, was only two so the content of the film was new to him too). In viewing the film this age discrepancy turned out to be a big deal. When the movie was done they each shared a few sentences about what they remembered about that day and, in particular, their parents’ reactions. Then they moved on. After five minutes of discussion they were satiated on this topic. For someone like me, who doesn’t remember this, who didn’t live it, I needed a little more time to digest and think about it. That’s probably why I wanted the film to be longer.

All in all, I’m glad I watched the film. It was certainly worth the interlibrary loan. And I actually think it would be a great piece for book clubs to do. I know it’s not an actual book, but it is a good length for a group viewing and a discussion. (Your discussion might be more fruitful than mine!) The $25 sticker price seems a little steep, but I imagine if I had bought this film I would lend it out to people fairly often. It’s a great film that I hope people will be able to access for a long time and point to as part of their inevitable discussions about race and the Church. If you haven’t seen it yet, get to the library or the website today–it’s worth it.

3 thoughts on “(LDS) Black History Month revisited”

  1. As one of the lucky group who got to see the film with you, I want to first say “Thanks!” for sharing the experience.

    I don’t think I recognized the different need for catharsis that someone encountering the issue as a past-only experience would have. Living through the experience of pre- and post-declaration has demanded a constant re-evaluation of what priesthood, revelation, and obedience to authority mean, with the declaration experience being but one aspect of the process. I’m sorry the discussion wasn’t as fruitful as you would like it to have been. I think that I personally am extremely guarded as to what I think on these subjects, probably because I have thought about them so much and in so many contexts, partly because the threads are interconnected and complex, and partly because I don’t have self-satisfying answers to all of those questions yet. This is probably part of my delight at staying in Primary so many years: I don’t have to self-censor in Sunday School and Relief Society.


  2. .

    I fully intend to buy this at some point. My biggest complaint about Sunstone West last year is that my presentation was the same time as Young showing the film then talking about it.

  3. Coffinberry– I’m glad you were there! I am still interested in hearing more of your thoughts on the subject. I’m not Sunday School or Relief Society so the need to self-censor might not be as high.

    Th.–You’re just lucky they have a Sunstone conf. where you can get to it! I was hesitant to post this because I figured most people who are involved in Mormon Letters had already seen it and done all their thinking on it. But I posted any way. Just in case there were other folks like me who hadn’t seen it and needed a little encouragement.

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