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YOUNG and GRAY, Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons Options · View
Gideon Burton
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 1:44:16 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/25/2007
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Location: Springville, Utah
[This is part 4 of my responses to the 2008 LDS Film Festival, cross posted from my blog at http://gideonburton.typepad.com where there are comments brewing]

In a telling interview in Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, a woman named Tamu admits she doesn't mind explaining her religious faith to blacks, but she does mind explaining her race to fellow Mormons. This documentary is serving both purposes. It dares to show black audiences that African-Americans have embraced Mormonism from the beginning and have stayed and grown in their faith in Christ despite mistreatment inconsistent with Christianity or Mormonism's own egalitarian principles. And the documentary also dares to show to Mormons the high cost of their racism and the flimsiness of those rationalizations (sometimes propagated from the top) that kept black Latter-day Saints from the full blessings of church membership for a century.

This film balances on that knife's edge of revealing the painful story of institutionalized racism within the Mormon church while honoring the deep-seated faith of black Mormons and their contentment with the church despite this history. It could have been an expose, but its filmmakers instead chose a rhetoric of reconciliation (these are white member Margaret Young --pictured above-- and black member Darius Gray--authors of the important trilogy of historical fiction on this topic, Standing on the Promises). The overall effect of the film is not so much to be disgusted with Mormonism's flaws but to be in awe at the strength of this minority within the church.

I measure the importance of this film in part by the kind of conversation it produced between me and my 17 year-old son on our ride home. He had never heard of the prejudice against blacks in the faith (we had lived in south London for a time and attended church with a congregation including many Anglo-Africans who were fully respected and integrated among the white British members). My normally mild-tempered child became indignant. Shouldn't we Mormons be the most tolerant and loving of all peoples? And why would the Lord allow such a hurtful policy to exist for so long? I got to tell him about how institutions get to repent, too, and how people can still be subject to the cultural prejudices of their time while otherwise doing a lot of good. And I got to explain to him how the conservative nature of the church can be hurtful (retaining a policy like denying blacks the priesthood) and helpful (resisting the fluctuating mores about sexuality or family life, for example). And I got to talk to him about how the institutional church does indeed test our faith as well as nurture it, and this history only gives us an occasion to be more humble and examine what we do today that might one day embarrass our descendants. These were good things to discuss.

The response to this film among those viewing it Saturday at the film festival in Orem was overwhelming and positive. Plenty of stories were exchanged about ongoing racial prejudice in the church, but the conversation was a constructive one, not a plaintive or condemntory one, and I credit this to the filmmakers and their candid and careful approach. Nobody Knows respects those that have been deeply hurt, those that ardently believe (black or white), and even those outside of the faith that have had reasonable problems with what in retrospect can only be seen as an unreasonable policy.

For me there were two highlights of the film. The first was when a non-Mormon AME preacher of great reputation reported his meeting with President Hinckley in Salt Lake City not long ago. President Hinckley apologized frankly to this church leader for the ways that the Mormon church had contributed to racial prejudice. This seemed fitting both with the character of President Hinckley and with the need for "truth and reconciliation" about this issue in our more enlightened day. I think it will only do much good for others to learn of this action by the current Mormon prophet. Shouldn't we all have such humility to own up to our individual or collective mistakes?

The second highlight for me--and something my son was deeply impressed by--was the comment by one black brother about his race being a mission that he embraces. Without overstating it, he compared himself to Christ who also accepted a mission that required great suffering. This man (a former bishop) did not come off as a martyr, but as someone who felt his race to be a blessing, not a curse, despite the fact that it has brought suffering. And that speaks to the film as a whole. There is no sense of martyrdom here. There is candor, faith, and even some humor along the way. I only hope that the non-LDS audiences that are soon to see the film at two upcoming film festivals will view it as positively, and I look forward to this documentary becoming a featured and much-discussed and distributed film among the Latter-day Saints who so dearly need to have the kinds of conversations that I got to have with my son upon exiting this thoughtful and affirming film.


Gideon Burton
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Brigham Young University
Provo, UT 84602
(801) 422-3525

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Trevor Banks
Posted: Monday, January 21, 2008 3:03:21 PM

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Joined: 1/10/2008
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Location: Lodz, Poland
Gideon,

Your discussion with your son is one that I can't yet understand having. Touching and sincere. I haven't seen the film, though I am heartily excited by the prospects. The film sounds far more important than any forays into Mormonized genres I've heard of yet.

I'm troubled and challenged (perhaps for the best) at your notion that institutions can repent as well. While the idea seems sound, and it makes certain things easier (who doesn't have trouble with that part of our doctrinal history), it also suggests that prejudice and the eyes of man directed a major doctrinal sore spot for our church. If its implications stayed with Blacks receiving the priesthood, we might be able to accept that, but in my eyes it has to go further to any uncomfortable doctrine or policy in our history. That becomes frightening to me. It gives me the right to say, "I don't like this doctrine or this policy. It's probably wrong. The church will repent for it later." i.e. they aren't divinely guided.

Have I been too short-sighted on something?

I raise this question, because there are several such "difficult" points in Mormon history that could easily be explained away as "The Church was wrong." The film you discuss seems to bring forth the difficult questions and refuse to give the easiest but most incomplete answers. I can't help but applaud it for that.

when I started writing, I thought that this would be the most appropriate forum for such a discussion, but I am left wondering. I apologize if this wasn't the appropriate way to bring it up.

I am very much looking forward to seeing the film.
Andrew Hall
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 1:15:06 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 80
Points: 249
Location: Denton, TX
Deseret Morning News
'Nobody Knows' is compelling subject
Published: January 24, 2008
NOBODY KNOWS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF BLACK MORMONS ****
Produced and written by: Margaret Young, Darius Gray
Length: 72 minutes

OREM — The untold story of black Mormons is a compelling one and a story that needs to be told, even shouted from the rooftops.

Fortunately, this film makes a good start as it explores the history, the faith and the bigotry that has existed since the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not to imply that this is a Mormon-bashing kind of movie. Quite the contrary, the simple but firm faith of the black members interviewed comes through clearly.

While there certainly is some hurt and question about why black Mormons were denied priesthood blessings and ordinations for so long, the people on screen tell their stories without anger.

From the first black man and woman's tale — that of Elijah Able (ordained an elder in 1832) and Jane Manning James — to Latter-day Saints like Darius Gray, Tamu Smith and Alex Boye, it's evident that faith and hope overrode their questions.

It's also clear that black Mormons have brought not only diversity and color to what is perceived by some as a "white man's church" but a new sense of unity and compassion, something needed for a church moving to bring in members from a worldwide missionary drive.

Through a series on on-camera interviews with people like Martin Luther King III, jazz musician Paul Gill and attorney-bishop Keith Hamilton, along with historical accounts, the story is powerfully told.

It makes one examine racial prejudice and mistaken perceptions about slavery, the black world and heaven.

It's a story the world needs to hear.
Andrew Hall
Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008 1:27:25 PM

Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 80
Points: 249
Location: Denton, TX
Film explores stories of black Mormons
By Sharon Haddock
Deseret Morning News
Published: January 24, 2008
OREM — The story behind "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons" is a compelling one and a story that needs to be told, even shouted from the rooftops.
Fortunately, this film makes a good start on that mission as it explores the history, the faith and the bigotry that has existed since the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not to imply that this is a Mormon-bashing kind of movie.

Quite the contrary, the simple but firm faith of the black members' interviews comes through clearly. There's no attempt made to assign blame or pummel the LDS gospel over what happened as church officials tried to deal with members who came into the church with slaves in tow. There's more of an attempt to explain why people associated — and in many case, still do — black Mormons with the "mark of Cain."

While there certainly is some hurt and question about why black Mormons were denied priesthood ordinations and temple blessings for so long, the people on-screen told their stories without bitterness. They recited their experiences, their beliefs and their testimonies candidly, making for a fascinating 72 minutes.

From the first black man's and woman's tales — of Elijah Able, ordained an elder in 1832, and Jane Manning James, who traveled west with the early saints — to Latter-day Saints like producer Darius Gray, Utah County homemaker Tamu Smith and singer/entertainer Alex Boye, it's evident that faith and hope overrode their immediate earthly concerns.

It's also clear that black Mormons have brought not only diversity and color to what is perceived by some as a "white man's church" but a new sense of unity and compassion, something needed for a church moving to bring in members from a worldwide missionary drive.

Through a series of on-camera interviews with people like Martin Luther King III, jazz musician Paul Gill, and attorney-bishop Keith Hamilton, along with historical accounts from the early days of Mormonism, the story is powerfully told.

It examines racial prejudice and mistaken perceptions about slavery, the black world and heaven. For example, Smith tells about a kindly temple worker who wondered how she would recognize her in heaven because there she, of course, wouldn't be black anymore.

It's a story the world needs to hear.

At the film's premiere at the 7th Annual LDS Film Festival at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem, Gray and co-producer Margaret Young said they deliberately avoided making the film about celebrity black Mormons or African converts, but focused rather on the average black Mormon's experience.

"We're not African Mormons. We're black Mormons," Gray said.

Young said the issues of bigotry and racial prejudices are still alive today, although black LDS men have been receiving the priesthood since 1978. Just this month, members of a congregation in Louisiana asked that black members attend another ward, Gray said.

Young and Gray said the question now is where things go from here.

"This is the Lord's church, and it's for all of us," he said. "This documentary is now done. It was an opportunity to let blacks have their say."

Young said the expectation is the documentary will move to cable distribution. It's already scheduled to screen at a number of other film festivals, including in Dallas and San Diego.

She also expressed hope that on June 8, on the anniversary of the revelation granting black members the right of priesthood ordinations, there may be an LDS Church-sponsored premiere.

(Margaret Young comments on the DN comment board:

Thank you for this kind review. We do need to make it clear that we are not seeking a Church-sponsored premiere. We have been very conscious of our status as INDEPENDENT film makers. We are going to be showing _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_ as part of the Foursite Film Festival in Ogden (11:00 a.m. on March 8th at the Egyptian Theater), but any sort of red-carpet premiere would not be held at an LDS site. We intend this film for a national audience.

Margaret Young | 5:24 p.m. Jan. 24, 2008
MoJules, our goal in making the documentary is precisely what you articulate as your hope: to be a source of peace and healing. We want to build bridges between many communities--LDS and non-LDS, black and white, black LDS and black non-LDS, etc. I hope we meet that goal. I wish you could see a screening. We don't have anything scheduled in Missouri. If you're in Ogden in March, we'd love to have you join us at the Foursite Festival.

Margaret Young | 8:48 a.m. Jan. 25, 2008
We are working on special features now. We will make it available on DVD, but we do not yet have a projected release date. Add your comment
Association for Mormon Letters
Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2008 5:27:51 PM

Rank: Administration

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 197
Points: 72
An article about this film:

http://www.heraldextra.com:80/content/view/258259/17/

For some reason the software here won't let the whole link be a link, so anyone who wants to read the article will have to copy the link and paste it into their browsers.
Association for Mormon Letters
Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2008 6:42:29 PM

Rank: Administration

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 197
Points: 72
Another review (dated 9 March 200cool:

http://mormontimes.com/MITN_entertainment.php?id=742

There was also a review by Jenny Larson in the 29 May 2008 Mormon Times, but we can't find a link to it. Maybe later.
Eric W Jepson
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 12:34:57 AM


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Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 158
Points: 327
Location: El Cerrito, California
.

It's playing in San Francisco next month. Anyone want to babysit for me and my wife?

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