What is the proper standard for measuring a documentary about black Mormons? On how much it makes us think? The level of provocation inherent in the topic is so high that calling NOBODY KNOWS “thought-provoking” seems insultingly obvious. Evaluating the film based on more standard criteria such as production value seems similarly pointless; this is a documentary produced on a shoestring, and we should not expect it to be slick like a Ken Burns production. NOBODY KNOWS presents a contradiction. On some levels it is a weak film, a failed project; but at the same time it is a marvelous, sublime film that surpasses all expectations.
The film traces in very broad strokes the history of black Mormons. It chooses to do so primarily in the form of vignettes and stories taken from journals and accounts, rather than presenting an overall history (although it does lay out the crucial points). We see snippets and tales from Elijah Able, Jane Manning James, Green Flake and others down to current pathfinders like Tamu Smith and Kevin Hamilton. Indeed, NOBODY KNOWS’ tag line is apt — we are hearing the untold stories. Viewers expecting a thorough historical investigation — or, for that matter, an in-depth look at the current black experience in the Church — will be disappointed. The film is simply unable to dive in with scholarly detail into the origins of the priesthood ban, or the life and times of those suffering under it. But Margaret Young and Darius Gray have chosen the better part, for NOBODY KNOWS gives voice to the voiceless. I was struck at how some of these black pioneers seem to be speaking to us from the dust, and if some historical rigor had to be left on the cutting room floor, so be it.
So, as a detailed history it fails. The film also fails in some respects as a storytelling device, if only because there are so many stories to tell. While NOBODY KNOWS does well with Elijah Able and Jane James, comparatively short shrift is given to blacks in between pioneer times and 1978 (although a considerable amount of screen time is given to Gray himself, who provides several of the film’s best moments). This cannot be because the stories from this pre-1978 period do not exist, and I do not envy the editorial decisions that Young and Gray must have surely faced. Similarly, the stories of contemporary blacks in the Church seemed too brief, although the personalities of Paul Gill and others really come through. Perhaps this is the objective of the film: to tell the stories of black Mormons just enough for viewers to crave more, to seek out these lost voices and to realize just how lucky we are to have such incredible people among us today.
In all this praise for the film, I do need to point out that it is not perfect. In terms of contextualizing the lifting of the ban, I think the film was too U.S.-centric and missed out on what was happening in Brazil and elsewhere. David G. raised these concerns earlier, and I tend to agree. Also, some of the computer-generated graphics — in particular the representations of the pre-existence — seemed a bit hokey for my taste. I understand that the notion of pre-existence must be explained to a general audience, but I would have preferred other than Star Trek-ish representations of the cosmos. I also felt like the story of the Genesis Group was left a bit unfinished — the group is formed and meets with the Brethren, but little is said of its other accomplishments. I would also have loved to hear from Darron Smith. But these are quibbles, and from what I hear the DVD will include multitudinous special features which may fill in many of the gaps I mention above.
NOBODY KNOWS is bold and direct. It is not a shill for the Church, and does not hold back from showing the awful racism that accompanied the priesthood ban. Without saying so directly, the documentary clearly portrays the ban as policy and not doctrine, and it is very straightforward in saying “good riddance” to the ban and its accompanying pseudo-doctrines. At the same time, Young and Gray are careful to show the prominent voices in the Church speaking out against racism, including President Hinckley’s address on the matter. Overall, NOBODY KNOWS is the story of black Mormons — not the story of white Mormons, nor the story of anti-Mormons. It is sui generis, and rightfully proud of its unique perspective. Ultimately the movie is a work of peace and healing, and as such it is an entirely praiseworthy effort.