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.