Review: Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons

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.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the review, Steve.

  2. Thanks. I look forward to seeing the film.

  3. I loved the film. My daughter loved the film. We appreciated its honesty, its vibrant testimonies. I am looking forward to the special features on the DVD almost as much as I looked forward to seeing the film. Only this time when I watch it, I will give more than lip service to the potential for tears: I will be sure to have access to endless Kleenex instead of being left to rely on evaporation.

    My only complaint about the film was the sound which may have just been a problem with the sound system and not the film. The opportunity to be a part of the question and answer session after the showing more than made up for any sound system flaws and definitely made the drive to see it at the festival worthwhile for us.

  4. Jami–the Museum of the African Diaspora, where we screened the film, had a major technical breakdown the morning we showed it, so they were scrambling to get any sound at all. They had to use a laptop and a makeshift system rather than what they usually have at hand.

    Steve, special features gives the detailed story of Len Hope, who converted to the Church in 1913 and was baptized just after WWI. We have Len’s own voice and words describing his conversion, courtesy of Elder Marion D. Hanks, who recorded them in 1946. (We chose to limit ourselves to just two pioneer stories as emblematic of many others, which we do tell in special features.) Newell Bringhurst talks about Brazil and a few other issues. Greg Prince talks about the important events of 1969 (Harold B. Lee and Hugh B. Brown), and I talk about the events of 1879 (meeting of John Taylor, Zebedee Coltrin, and Abraham Smoot). We did have to pick and choose what footage we would use. One of the interviews (actually a Sunstone presentation) we decided not to use was Darron Smith’s. He said good things, but we had others who said the same things but who had better lighting. Choices get made on all sorts of grounds. There is more about Genesis in special features as well, but I do see your point in our mere introduction of the subject. I’m excited about what we filmed in San Francisco with Connell O’Donovan as our interview subject. His research really brings us up to the minute.

    Thanks for coming to the show and for this review! I don’t personally mind the animation our editor added to the pre-mortal life explanation, but I understand your problem with it.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Margaret, viewing the film, being there for the Q&A and chatting with you and Darius are among the highlights of the year for me. It was a pleasure.

  6. I was listening to Margaret Young and Darius Gray on NPR while driving a few weeks ago and I completely missed my exit because I was so enthralled with what they were saying.

    From listening to them for an hour on the radio I learned aspects about my own faith that I had never heard before. I also grew a strong admiration for my black brothers and sisters.

    I’m excited to see the film, if it invokes half of the emotion I felt from their NPR interview it will be time well spent.

  7. OK OK, now to the really important stuff (for those of us not living in the West)- when is the DVD coming out?

  8. DVD will be out soon. We will likely get out some early DVDs by FAIR and Sunstone. The proceeds will help us continue our distribution. We worked today on the Len Hope sequence, and will have a couple more working days to edit what we filmed in San Francisco.

  9. And now my review of Steve’s review:
    You are such a mensch, Steve. If you were a woman, you’d love the story-telling of the film and you’d wish we had cherubic cartoons in the pre-existence portion.

    The truth is, I always opted for a historian’s/interviewee’s personal story on the hard issues even beyond the historical facts. So if I can have Newell Bringhurst telling me about the first time he said “no preference” to the question of his religion–when talking to a Black NCO in the military, or if I can have Armand Mauss telling about learning of the priesthood ban when “a boy about my age, named Richard, moved into our ward…At age twelve, we all were ordained to the priesthood except for this boy… The bishop explained it was, well, because of some taint from the seed of Cain…” I’ll probably take the stories before I’ll take passages (however brilliant) from _Saints and Slaves_ or _All Abraham’s Children_. (Of course, I’ll want the history too, but always contextualized within personal stories. We have lethally boring history books which neglect this truth: History is made of people’s stories and voices, and facts are deadly COLD without the personal voice. We build generations which hate textualized history because they have memorized dates rather than learned to love people.)

    As I’ve thought about it, I think the documentary itself and the special features (which will be twice as long as the doc) fill separate purposes. Also, Steve, you might want to check out _Blacks and the Scriptures_, which is made by two MEN (Darius Gray and Marvin Perkins).

    One more quick comment: We know when to expect laughs in the doc, but we got one in San Francisco at an unexpected point: when Mauss talks about “some taint from the seed of Cain.” Mormon audiences don’t laugh at that line. It was very interesting that a predominantly non-LDS audience found it humorous. What does that imply? Is the teaching so familiar to us that it’s not funny? Is it something which makes us nervous? I wonder if it’s simply absurd, and hence humorous, to a non-LDS audience.

    It was great being with you and your beautiful wife, Steve.

  10. Mark IV says:

    I wonder if it’s simply absurd

    Yes.

  11. Well then, Mark IV, I guess we need to get them to download “Lesson 10″ of the Pof GP from BYU’s religion department, don’t we.

  12. I remember that part, and I still think it’s funny- the man is going on about how there was one boy who couldn’t get ordained, and you think you know why – that he’s black – but as the story reaches the end, the camera is closing in on a thoroughly typical looking blonde boy, and you realize that you’ve been tricked!
    And then the policy is funny if this is the “black” kid in question. (not funny in a laughing-at-ourselves way but in an absurd way that makes the policymakers look dumb)

  13. Of course, it wasn’t at all funny for the many families who joined the LDS Church and had to forego temple blessings, priesthood ordinations, and the things we value most once they had done their genealogy and discovered that they had a black ancestor. The “one drop” philosophy applied, and there were many men who had been ordained but were subsequently asked not to participate in priesthood ordinances because of “some taint” from Africa.

    This quote is from Pastor Murray in our special features: “And then DNA tells you that the man you’ve been pointing your finger at is your great great great great great grandfather…If you think that God has patted you on the head and said, ‘You’re the best thing since toast’, you are living in another century!”

  14. Mark IV says:

    Margaret,

    I haven’t seen the documentary yet, just the trailer. I love the way it ends, with that scene of a picnic and the song that is so joyously ebullient: “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table.” But the trailer fades out with this verse: “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me”.

    Let’s set aside everything pre-1978 for now. The way we attempt to excuse ourselves for our attitudes and make a fetish out of nutty ideas about pure bloodlines leaves us with a lot to answer for.

  15. Absolutely, the boy’s pain and all the other excluded people did hit home during that story. Plus, I hadn’t realized there was a “one drop” rule in the priesthood/temple exclusion. I don’t recall any other part-black stories, at least not before that point, so I really had no idea it excluded mixed race or mostly-white members.

    But it was funny at the moment I realized I’d been tricked into looking at the wrong kid in that photo, and wondering “wait, you call THAT black?” as if these guys couldn’t even keep straight who they were trying to keep out.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    Margaret, don’t misunderstand me — I am not criticizing the film for not being “historical enough” or anything. I understand that this is a director’s decision, and one I respect and appreciate. Indeed, I think it was the right choice given your subject matter and goals. Not a criticism at all.

  17. margaret,

    im going to go out on a limb here but I wonder if the laughter from the “some taint” phrase I think had to do with the word “taint”

  18. Steve–I’m teasing you. I thought your review was excellent and honest. I took a swim after you posted it and was simply contemplating the ways I tend to mold fiction or film. In RS, someone had mentioned that men tend to give logical detail, but women tell stories. That’s too global an assessment, but it was interesting to contemplate.
    I’ve noted that Bruce prepares for hours to give his talks, accumulating scriptures and quotes. I rarely do much but think of what stories I’ll tell.
    In all serioiusness, though, I think we put the solid history into the special features and try to make the documentary itself a more emotional, flowing experience. I hope I didn’t sound like I was really criticizing you. I plan on quoting your review when we start marketing the film.

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