What follows is my review of the film <a href="http://www.untoldstoryofblackmormons.com/"Nobody Knows, The Untold Story of Black Mormons. I have divided it into three sections. The first section, “Review,” is just that, my review of the movie. I think it is important to separate reviewing the movie that was actually made, as opposed to one I expected or hoped for. The only critiques that matter are the ones in the “Review” section. The other two sections, “What I was expecting” and “What I would like to see but probably never will” should not be taken as criticism of the movie. The other sections represent my thoughts. Since my thoughts were not part of the movie making process, they don’t count as a review. Margaret Young and Darius Gray made a beautiful movie with a beautiful vision, and that’s what I hope to get across in the review proper.
If I had to sum up the movie in two words, the words would be “pioneer” and “redemption.” The overarching theme was the extraordinarily brave and many times heartbreaking stories of black Mormons. Each of the black Mormons who was interviewed was simply allowed to speak and their stories filled the screen without any need for interpretation, fancy editing, or technological wizardry. Each of the interviewees were compelling speakers with compelling stories. This also reflects well on the makers of the documentary; they had the good sense to let the stories speak for themselves.
I felt the stories built well to the second theme, the redemption of the LDS church from its racist past. What added more power to this was the nature of the redemption, it came from the black Mormons. Each of their struggles and pains in a sense redeems the church and leads it forward to a more tolerant and enlightened future. This is a powerful message, that those who had been neglected and treated badly redeem the church through their pain and suffering. The parallels to Jesus Christ should be obvious.
My only real beef with the movie was that I wished it would have been longer. The makers obviously had plenty of extra footage, the special features are quite lengthy, and I would have liked more of that integrated into the documentary.
What I was expecting
I was expecting a starker contrast in the film. To be honest I thought it let the LDS church off too easily. For example, the film bent over backwards to contextualize Brigham Young as a garden variety 19th century racist he was simply going along with society. The problem with that interpretation is that I don’t think Brigham really cared much about going along with society. Secondarily, it leaves polygamy completely unexplainable. It’s difficult to imagine a Brigham who was independent enough to buck 19th century monogamy by marrying over 50 women and yet have standard 19th century views about blacks, especially since he knew how Joseph Smith had approached the question of blacks in the church. A stark contrast gives a viewer a chance to process truth in all it’s ugliness leading up to a catharsis. By holding back one misses the chance for that emotional release leading to self-analysis, self-redemption, and change.
I was also expecting more information on the politics of the lifting of the ban. Darius Gray dismisses this question saying that no politics were involved. Coming from him, this means something. On the other hand, things are never that simple, and I think the evidence suggests that there were some politics and social pressure involved. If I am wrong on that, I would have loved for the documentary to have proved me wrong.
What I would like to see but probably never will
First, I would have liked to have seen interviews with apostles who were there and could explain the process as it happened. We have some vague ideas about what happened, but we really can’t put a timeline in place, nor can we place the actors where they should be. Even better, access to pertinent internal memos, minutes, recordings etc. would have helped to know what “went down” leading up the the lifting of the ban. I don’t think any of this information will be forthcoming, we’ve had 30 years to try and get it, and none of this has come out. Unfortunately only a very few apostles are still living who were alive, as apostles, in 1978. Once they die that valuable information will go with them.
Second, I would have liked to have seen interviews with more average Mormons. All of the interviewees, I think without exception, were either black Mormons or liberal white Mormons, who are by definition exceptional (as in rare). My worry is that this film only speaks for and to those two groups of people. Ironically, since those two groups are probably the most likely to already know this information, the documentary risks preaching to the choir. What do average white Mormons think about this? Do they still own and quote Mormon Doctrine? What percent of them still believe the old ideas? And if they do what would it take to get that junk out of their heads? Or, did most white Mormons turn on dime in 1978 and have never looked back, embracing a color blind outlook? What do other minorities in the church think of this?
Third, what is the difference between a policy and a doctrine? Too many Mormons find solace in saying that the priesthood ban was only a policy and not a doctrine. How does that make a difference? Isn’t that just legalistic hairsplitting? After all, German policy towards the Jews in the 1930’s and 1940’s was just that, a policy. Does that somehow lessen the severity of the Holocaust? Obviously not. Then why does the priesthood ban being a policy somehow mitigate the problem which being a doctrine would cause? This would probably involve a level of theological and philosophical sophistication which no documentary could resolve.
24 Replies to “A Review of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons”
“Too many Mormons find solace in saying that the priesthood ban was only a policy and not a doctrine. How does that make a difference?”
It’s not about solace. It’s about the truth. What needs to be made clear is that although many Mormons believed it was an irreversible doctrine that couldn’t be changed–the truth is that it was not. It was a policy and policies may change. The problem was that the policy was given increased justifications throughout the years until it was even taught and believed to be fully doctrinal. This likely made the majority of Church members feel better about such an uncomfortable position/policy. How else could one have justified something like this involving issues of race without conceding racism?
Of course, the unfortunate truth is that there was indeed racism, and I think this documentary will eventually help members of the Church to face up to the painful truth and stop trying to justify things that should not be justified. Only then can we truly and collectively repent (ie: the redemption of which you talked about) and move forward stronger in the truth.
It’s not about solace. It’s about the truth. What needs to be made clear is that although many Mormons believed it was an irreversible doctrine that couldn’t be changed–the truth is that it was not. It was a policy and policies may change.
That’s a fairly standard explanation of what policies are, that they can change, whereas doctrines cannot. The problem is that it only works as an ex post facto explanation of why something did change, it does not clarify what a policy actually is. Admittedly McKay called it a policy before the change, but it wasn’t made public, so it exists in limbo. In practical terms the MO is to most big things as doctrine, until they aren’t. Was polygamy doctrinal or a policy? How about women holding the priesthood, they could give blessing before, now they don’t? How about homosexuality? The list goes on.
I have seen the DVD to and I thought it was excellent. Have you read the book “Lengthen your stride” by Edward Kimball? This is a continuation of his earlier biography of his father Spencer W. Kimball. The chapters on the 1978 revelation are probably the most complete account we are likely to get of the events that lead up to the revelation.
It is clear that the upcoming dedication of the first temple in Brazil which under the old policy was off limits to the Saints in Brazil of African ancestry was a factor in causing President Kimball to rethink the policy.
Secondly President Kimball really was serious about his desire to take the gospel to countires where there were no missionaries.
I tried to take a stab at this on my recent post “Why I Don’t Believe That God Instituted The Priesthood Ban”
The definitions do matter. For example, are we defining doctrine simply as a “teaching” or as a “truth”. Some of those justifications were taught as “doctrine”, but they were not actually based in “truth”. However, if you define doctrine as a set of “beliefs” that are held by and taught by a Church, then one can make a case that the ban was indeed “doctrinal”–at least for the time–and that it no longer is.
I see a big difference in eternal unchanging truth (which is how I personally define “doctrine”) and “policy” (which I’d define as the administration of doctrine as we currently understand it, but which can and does change from time to time as our understandings change.) In this respect, the exclusionary policy was indeed a policy (not unchanging doctrine/truth).
Compromising on “policies” in regards to homosexuals in the Church is not the same thing as compromising on eternal doctrine. In this case, policy reflects our attitudes and treatment of our gay brothers and sisters. Policy can and does change, and some of our policies in regards to Homosexuals have indeed changed for the better. But eternal truth or doctrine, as taught by prophets and scripture consistently through time (specifically in regards to the paramount importance of the family unit with a mother and father) is “doctrinal” and part of God’s eternal plan for His children. As our understanding of how to administer the doctrine increases, policies may change. But the doctrine itself is fixed; fixed in eternal truth.
Brigham ignored societal norms of x, therefore he ignored societal norms of everything?
Again, same with polygamy. If one defines doctrine as a set of “beliefs” that are held by and taught by a Church, then one can say that plural marriage was indeed “doctrinal”–at that time–and that it no longer is doctrinal today. This must be how President Hinckley was defining doctrine when he said it’s no longer “doctrinal”. And I’d agree with that.
If there is a lesson here, it’s to be careful how we define our terms. Do most people inside the Church think of doctrine as the current set of “beliefs”, or as “unchanging eternal truth”? Perhaps both, depending on the context.
Brigham certainly believed the priesthood ban was “doctrinal” at the time, but this was according to his set of beliefs and prejudices as a product of his times. He also believed in polygamy as “doctrinal”. So at least he seems to be consistent with his set of “beliefs” (one of the definitions of “doctrine”). Either way, those beliefs made him buck the national trend in one respect, and follow along with national trend in another.
No but polygamy and slavery were probably the two biggest political issues of that time period. To claim divine inspiration on one of those, while claiming run of the mill “going along to get along” on the other issue stretches credulity.
Clean Cut (#4),
You say: “I see a big difference in eternal unchanging truth (which is how I personally define “doctrine”) and “policy” (which I’d define as the administration of doctrine as we currently understand it, but which can and does change from time to time as our understandings change.) In this respect, the exclusionary policy was indeed a policy (not unchanging doctrine/truth).”
Why define doctrine as eternal truth? A doctrine is simply a teaching, or body of teachings, principles etc, as you indicated in #4. I respect that we can choose to have private definitions. However, private defintions make communication impossible.
By the way, by your definition, the term “false doctrine” is an oxymoron. Do you deny that there is any such thing as false doctrine (think the teaching that God is non-corporeal, for example)? Or would you argue that such would be a false teaching and therefore a “non-doctrine”?
No but polygamy and slavery were probably the two biggest political issues of that time period. To claim divine inspiration on one of those, while claiming run of the mill “going along to get along” on the other issue stretches credulity.
Of what time period? And where? Slavery was certainly among the most important political issues in antebellum America. In postbellum America at large? Not so much. Polygamy, meanwhile, didn’t concern the majority of Americans in antebellum America, and only became a serious political issue in the second half of the 19th century.
That we have a revelation from JS on one of the issues (polygamy) and not on the other (slavery/priesthood ban) probably affects how people today interpret Brigham’s actions as well.
Of what time period? The 1850’s, see the 4th paragraph of the 1856 Republican party platform.
And where. The simple fact that the issue was an issue in the territory where the saints were living, which was the absolute sticks at the time, shows that it was an issue everywhere.
In postbellum America at large? No, since the war ended slavery, it’s would be hard to get worked up about it after the fact.
Yeah, thanks. I’m familair with the 1856 Republican platform. But its inclusion by one party in their platform does not make it one of “the two biggest political issues of that time period.”
The simple fact that the issue was an issue in the territory where the saints were living, which was the absolute sticks at the time, shows that it was an issue everywhere.
Huh?? That seems like awfully problematic reasoning to me.
No, since the war ended slavery, it’s would be hard to get worked up about it after the fact.
Really? Perhaps you should revisit the history of reconstruction in the South if you think slavery ceased to be a political issue after the civil war.
I’m really interested, though, in your response to my final comment. That we have a revelation from JS on polygamy points to an obvious source of where BY got the idea for polygamy. That we have no such revelation from JS (or anyone else) on the priesthood ban suggests BY picked up the idea from somewhere else, and the surrounding racist culture of 19th century America seems like an obvious source. How does that stretch credulity?
“It’s difficult to imagine a Brigham who was independent enough to buck 19th century monogamy by marrying over 50 women and yet have standard 19th century views about blacks, especially since he knew how Joseph Smith had approached the question of blacks in the church.”
It isn’t that difficult for me, but it requires a stronger sense of self honesty than most of us are willing to share publicly. Hoping not to sound terribliy cynical… the two issues represent similar cost/benefit values for any male with typical male human nature notwithstanding they may have received oppoiste acceptance in American culture (polygamy a no no, racism a widely accepted practice).
I don’t know how to say this in a more respectful way, but it seems naive to me that we ignore the carnal human nature of men, who because of this nature, tend to like two things a lot, women and someone to demean in order for their egos and human desire of power to be justified. Both polygamy and the priesthood ban provide a means of satisfaction to such carnal/basic instincts.
I know, we often avoid seeing our religious figures in this light, it may even be a taboo to speak of them like this, but I find too naive to simply detach the human nature from them when trying to understand why they were inclined to certain things.
Ok, so, this is what I am saying…(what the heck, I’ll just say it). Brigham was a man. Why go against the flow with polygamy and go with the flow with racism? Convenience.
A man wants women, a man wants power, a man often needs to feel superior to other men in order to feel good about himself (especially when using religious folk to justify it). The cost/benefit value of these two issues, although they seem opposite with each other when contrasted with American values of the time, they both provide indulgence of a man’s carnal human nature.
Polygamy provided something he wanted, and didn’t care for going against the flow. Racism provided something he wasn’t bothered by, therefore he embraced the flow.
I know this is a very cynical view of Brigham, and in no way am I implying that these comments begin to scratch the surface the complexity and mixture of factors that led to his decisions regarding the two issues.
I just want to argue that just because he didn’t go with the flow on something, that did not necessarily mean he was necessarily going to act likewise with something else (especially if that something else provided a satisfaction to his ego).
Actually, I feel very strongly that even Brigham Young, after being at odds so much with American protestantism and government, he was not going to simply become a complete opposite to his cultural upbringing, and any chance to retain an American identity would have been taken by him.
Having said that, I loved your post. I also watched the documentary and loved it dearly. You bring points that I failed consider when I watched it.
Schwarzer , I don’t want to give off the wrong impression here. I wasn’t trying to dig my heals in and promote one definition over the other. I was just trying to say that that was how I had personally thought about “doctrine”. That’s also what I had understood President McKay to be saying when he differentiated between policy and doctrine. Yet I also gave examples of Brigham Young and President Hinckley referring to doctrine in another way, as well. I myself probably shift between the two. The point about “solace”, however, was that people took solace in “false doctrine” as they tried to give reasons to and justify the ban.
It’s quite possible that the best and most common definition of “doctrine” is simply a commonly held set of beliefs. And in that case, doctrines as well as policies may change. And a “false doctrine” is simply a teaching that is not actually rooted in “truth”. I openly recognize that there may be a large group of members of the Church that perhaps understand the definition of “doctrine” differently. This may be a great discussion point for another blog post sometime.
On policy vs. doctrine/truth, it would be helpful for you to discuss how we recognize the distinction between the two. IMO, such a distinction is helpful in explaining things such as the priesthood ban, but I’m not sure how well the distinction actually works if we can’t recognize the difference between policy and doctrine.
Excellent reviews. The one thing I wanted to see more in the film was an exploration of the priesthood ban as it extended to a temple ban; As you say, the film could have been longer and this would have been a good addition.
Very interesting movie. Maybe approaching other outside influences would have been interesting to see. (Rev. France Davis’ lawsuit on the church and boy scouts during the same time period, etc.)
Thanks for this review, David. You make excellent points. It was quite something to make the hard decisions of what we’d include in the doc, what we’d move to “special features” and what we’d not include at all. We do talk about Brazil in Special Features, but we don’t go into more depth about the denial of temple privileges. The film has a couple of minutes devoted to that as we talk about Jane James’s petitions for the endowment, but we don’t explore it further.
Why isn’t it longer? Darius has what he calls the “butt factor”. He takes note of when people start fidgeting in their seats and starts editing so that we’re not at risk of losing our audience. The second factor was money. We did this for an obscenely small amount of money (revealed in the upcoming issue of _Dialogue_). And we did interview some conservative white Mormons. Frankly, they just didn’t say much we could use. Often, they said things which others had already said better.
It’s always interesting to me to read what other people would’ve done with the film. I’ve also heard complaints that we didn’t spend enough time on the pentecostal events of June 1st, 1978 in the temple.
Ultimately, this became a three-person project, with lots of support from donors. It was Darius, me, our editor (Danor Gerald, who was replaced by Jim Hughes when Danor took an acting job). And it was a lot of love.
Anyway, this is an excellent and thoughtful review, David.
I hope we speak not just to liberal Mormons and Blacks but to other audiences as well. Some Mormons we’d consider conservative have surprised us by their positive response to the film. And we had a lot of success showing it in Black film festivals, and even aired it on WHUT, the PBS station from Howard University. We plan on marketing it to universities all over the U.S. because, frankly, it’s the only full-length documentary around which addresses this particular religion and the race issue. That narrow focus provides insights into the larger issues of race and of other religions, and at the very least, opens the door for further conversation.
I plan to order the DVD Monday, after the holiday. We are a Conservative family and have adopted black children… We also had to deal with African Americans not holding Priesthood when we were investigating the Church in 1978. I think my opinions of the ban, the Revelation, and now the DVD that depicts the process, would be quite different from the opinions of a Liberal Mormon. I’m bringing this up, because I’d be reticent to have other religions and universities believe that what they see on the DVD is an overall LDS view. I’d want there to be other points of view presented in conjunction with the DVD, as I’ve just suggested, they’d be a bias presented with only the DVD offered and I’d be sad for that to happen. I expect to enjoy the DVD nevertheless, and believe it is an important addition to all Mormon video collections.
“I think my opinions of the ban, the Revelation, and now the DVD that depicts the process, would be quite different from the opinions of a Liberal Mormon.”
In what way? I think this is an issue the conservatives and liberals can easily find common ground.
I still need to watch the DVD. Is it on netflix?
I had the impression that mostly Liberal Mormons were quoted on the DVD, and of course the Black members who are sharing their beliefs .I can’t seem to find that reference… anyway, I’ll have to see the DVD first, but generally, I’ve had many experiences over the years with liberal and conservative members of the Church. i’ve found that those black converts who have strong ideologies and also strong testimonies, tend to be more conservative… the black members in our current Ward are very conservative.. I’m speaking of values and politics. White liberal members, I think, seem to be critical of others and attempt to label other members as “racist”, much more so than any members who are conservative, and I guess I’m emphasizing their political views, which include values different from liberal members.. now this might cause you to want to keep up a discussion with this, but I was just traveling thru the blogs and have to focus on cooking for the 4th.. also, I’m not great at expressing my point of view in a forum such as this. I was attempting to change my comment but my letters were getting gobbled up, so this will have to suffice… I think members from the left to the far right will have problems agreeing on a lot of subjects, just that we have such varying beliefs on the basics… I can say this with some confidence since I was very liberal before converting to the Gospel.
“now this might cause you to want to keep up a discussion with this”
No, I was just looking for clarification and I think you did that. While I am very liberal politically, I think that when it comes the the basics (the Savior, Joseph Smith, The Book of Mormon) we probably have a lot in common. That is why I love belonging to (and serving in) the Church.
Come back and follow-up on your comment after you watch it, I would love to hear what you have to say. I will do the same.
David, Darius and I are meeting soon to redesign our cover and might use some of your words. Hope that’s okay.
It’s fine with me. Good luck with the new cover.