My husband asked me last week if I had ever heard of Helen Whitney. Since I was interviewed by her and her staff, I have obviously heard of her. It turns out that Helen was mentioned in the Ensign, along with her 4-hour documentary to be aired April 30 and May 1 titled The Mormons. But since that implicit Church endorsement, there have been cautionary e-mails. The scuttlebutt is that Helen showed the documentary to PBS (aka the big sponsor) and was told it was too positive; she was asked to re-edit. Now the instruction I’ve heard going out to Mormons is to look at the documentary first before inviting investigators to a FHE with Helen Whitney’s work as the scheduled activity.
Meanwhile, of course, the evangelical effort has produced a companion piece to The Godmakers which fits nicely under windshield wipers of any car with a license plate that reads “RULDS2.”
And come May 4, we will get to see TV’s Superman (Dean Cain) portraying Joseph Smith, and John Gries as John D. Lee in a “love story” set during the Mountain Meadows Massacre. (Don’t ask me why Joseph Smith has anything to do with this.) The movie is titled September Dawn. The pitch to the audience says: “Who ordered the massacre and why has been hidden in a cloak of secrecy and conspiracy, and the reputation of one of the nation’s mightiest religious leaders has been preserved and protected…until now.”
Triple whammy. By May 5th, all three of these productions will be reaching for an audience.
Since I got to participate a little in the pre-production of Helen’s work (and I really like Helen, by the way, as well as everyone who interviewed me for this project), I know for a fact that she has a copy of Mormon Doctrine. (No, I didn’t give it to her, but the conversation revealed that the production company had it in hand.) It may be that Helen Whitney will accomplish what I’ve been trying to do for years: get that book off the shelves. I don’t know how prominent my “pet issue” (race) will be in the final cut, but I do know two people who were interviewed on-camera. I’m pretty sure it’ll come up.
Meanwhile, a small group of us are working on a wing and a prayer (and a little money) to make our own documentary. As we’ve proceeded, I’ve done what any honest historian does: I’ve examined my agenda. How does my LDS bias color the project? Is it possible to do something truly objective? (The answer is no.) Can we really tell the truth without also embarrassing the Church with the most embarrassing moments from its glorious past? Whose stories do we focus on? What do we leave out? Is there a thesis to this project, or simply the offer of a new (sometimes painful) vision of ourselves and of our brothers and sisters?
I think the makers of September Dawn found a compelling plot and expect to make a lot of money–and I think they likely will. (If they could find a role for Denzel Washington, I might even want to see it.) The makers of the newest “Mormons Aren’t Christians” film obviously came to it with a well-defined thesis/purpose. I wish I knew what Helen Whitney’s thoughts were as she was asked to re-edit for an agenda which was not quite her own (given the assumption that the rumor is true). Helen’s promise was never to make a pro-Mormon movie, but simply one that was “balanced.” (But do Mormons tend to find “balance” only when the Haun’s Mill Massacre is included and somebody sings “Praise to the Man”? Have we been so inculcated with our in-house productions that we won’t be able to recognize an attempt at balance which doesn’t make us feel good? Richard Dutcher would have something to say about that, but I won’t speak for him.)
As for me and my house of filmmakers, we will try to get at some version of the truth. I am not naive enough to suppose we will really capture it, because every person’s story is different. Can I leave out my friend’s account of being called an expletive in the temple? Or can I leave out her words, “I couldn’t look my Savior in the eye and say ‘I couldn’t do it because people were mean’”? Can we afford to use selective, self-censoring memory as we tell a story which claims to portray truth?
I am nearly finished transcribing fifty tapes of interviews. Each tells a different story. Each approaches faith from a distinct perspective. Several of the interviews are with African American men who joined the LDS Church during the turbulent 60s and were seen as the worst and most treacherous renditions of a soul-bleached Uncle Tom. I cannot include all of the stories (in fact, we will only be able to include a fraction), but I–and all of us involved in this project–will try to honor them all. And that does mean we will be telling the WHOLE story as far as we’re able to. I hope that the wholeness actually does something to make ALL of us “whole”–healed and restored to the “better angels” we can become.
I think it’s possible that Helen Whitney’s work, though it might be uncomfortable to watch, can accomplish that same goal.
Margaret is a celebrated author, professor of English, and is also a contributor to T&S.