Upcoming Films: The Triple Whammy

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.


  1. Margaret, thanks for this write-up. I hadn’t heard about the putative re-edit. That is a bit disconcerting; however, I have a fairly high level of confidence in Whitney. I guess we will just have to see.

    Probably obviously, I am a big proponent of true history. I recently came across a blessing of Wilford Woodruff after the dedication the font of the Endowment House. It was very much a re-blessing of all that he had received up to that point, and then at the end was added that he should “have the gift of writing the truth as a historian.” I love that. What a blessing!

    I look forward to your documentary and I am hopeful that Whitney’s will be good for the Church.

  2. Margaret,
    I think you’re right about the possibility that Mormons will see bias in the PBS documentary when in fact there isn’t.

    Will you make all the stories available in some other format?

  3. Mark IV says:

    Margaret, I look forward to your documentary with great anticipation. I’m confident that it will be wonderful.

    I believe that people can deal with unpleasant facts if they trust the intentions of the one who presents the facts. In your case, I think your love of God and of the restored gospel will enable you to speak the truth.

  4. The trailer for “The Mormons” is available on PBS’ website.

  5. Judging from the press release they are going to have Margaret Toscano stuff, gay stuff, polygamy stuff, ERA stuff, and persecution stuff.

  6. Jonathan–thanks for writing the bio for me. I’m flattered to be considered “celebrated.” However, I am only a part-time instructor. I have the luxury of teaching one class a semester, twice a year. And I have only 20 students per class. Yes, I realize how lucky I am. I also raise my children, play with my grandchildren, write, and make documentaries (at least now I do).
    Ronan: Our release plan takes the doc to theaters first, then hopefully to a cable channel (like the history channel), and then to DVD. The DVD will contain many of the interviews which were not included in the documentary itself.
    Matt W: ERA stuff? Wow! That’s going back a lot of years! The two Black men I know were interviewed on camera for the Helen Whitney piece are Darius Gray and Darron Smith. Both have different perspectives and life experiences. Darron is pretty young. Darius is not so young. (He joined the Church in 1964.)

  7. I’m glad to hear that eventually a DVD will be in the works. For those of us who live outside the U.S. this is welcome news! This is a wonderful project, Margaret.

  8. Make that a quadruple-whammy (although probably in a good way): starting tomorrow, Showtime is airing This American Life episode 3, “God’s Close-Up,” which deals with a Mormon artist in Utah, his Jesus model, the model’s atheist girlfriend, and her active father. I am officially completely jealous of everybody who gets Showtime and can watch the series. (Plus Ira Glass, the host, said that this is his favorite TV episode they’ve done so far.)

  9. I’m getting a little nervous that this blog post might be seen as yet another attempt to draw attention to my project. Well of course it is, but it’s also an opportunity to talk about these other depictions of Mormonism, with their various objectives.
    Thanks for your kind words, Kris. Honestly, it IS a wonderful project, simply because we’ve interviewed some remarkable people and managed to get some incredible, never-released, archival footage. Our total cost will be just a fraction of Helen’s, of course, and she comes to hers with top professionalism. I was interviewed twice over the phone by her staff, and once in person–and this was all preparatory work, done a year before any filming. I saw Helen at Sunstone, and Darius reported on how extremely careful the filmmakers were with lighting and sound when they filmed him. _The Mormons_ will be top-notch work.
    Ours might show our budgetary limitations, but it will have some real soul. We will get a website up for it fairly soon.

  10. I know one person in the ex-mormon community, who was asked to participate in the Whitney documentary, at the very last minute, and some of the conversation led her to believe that Whitney had been told it was too positive. However, in the end, my friend was not interviewed, because of some kind of scheduling conflicts.

  11. Personally, I just love the idea of Superman defending the historical accuracy of September Dawn. From a recent news article:

    “I was a history major in college and I read a lot about it,” adds the Princeton grad. “I do know that everything said by Brigham Young in the film is taken from historical records.”

    Whoa, a HISTORY MAJOR! well, then!

    Margaret, I think your film sounds absolutely fascinating.

  12. Margaret, yes the ERA stuff…

    From the press release:

    The Mormons’ protection of their view of family life also became political. “The Equal Rights Amendment was threatening because it changed the role of women … from a nurturing housewife staying at home, taking care of the children, to someone who could now make decisions for herself,” says James Clayton, professor of political science. Author and feminist Gloria Steinem says Mormon involvement in the ERA issue of the 1970s was pivotal: “If the Mormons had supported the Amendment, it would have passed. They were enormously powerful in opposing it because there are certain key state legislatures which they control.”

  13. I was contacted by Helen’s researchers as well and had several delightful prolonged conversations with them. They impressed me as being incredibly knowledgeable and sympathetic, sophisticated consumers of religious culture and high-quality documentarians. I hope the production does well. I’m excited to see how they finally worked things out. I doubt the Mormons will get as sophisticated and sympathetic an audience any time soon.

    I’m delighted to see the final result of your documentary, Margaret. Sign us up for a copy of the DVD (or whatever is the mechanism for disseminating it).

  14. After seeing the trailer for September Dawn, I have a feeling the budget for marketing and the film itself is fairly small. Combine this with the fact that it’s opening against Spider-Man 3, well I’m not worried about many people seeing it.

    I’m looking forward to the PBS documentary, warts and all. i enjoy seeing different perspectives about the church. And from what I’ve read it seems to be very well balanced (which means many of the LDS I know will consider it anti.

  15. Well, having graded papers for today’s class, I finally buckled down and watched the trailer for _The Mormons_. (Thanks for the link, Connor [#4].) I think the trailer might turn off those who are NOT sympathetic to the Church. It is very positive. The only controversial issue introduced is the status of gays in the Church. (Touching interview with Trevor Southey.) But the trailer is only 6 minutes. The documentary will be four hours. I personally have no fear of anything which will be presented. I’d even say I’m thankful for the attention all three (or four) of these films (as well as Romney’s candidacy) offer the Church. People will be asking questions. That’s a good thing.

  16. As Mormons, we need to be as transparent as possible about who were in the past, who we are now and what we believe. The world is to small for us to hide in and I don’t think we should any longer. The Lord wants his work to move forward and the opportunity is now. We no longer need to fear the persecution of the past. This is the 21st Century and we have made our mark and are respected by many people around the world. If we always tell the truth, even if it is a little painful, it will outshine our detractors.

  17. Margaret,
    I’m also looking forward to your upcoming documentary. The excerpts I’ve seen have been very promising. BTW, I recently showed part of your Jane Manning James film as part of a class discussion on what constitutes “fair use” of copyrighted works when filming a documentary. Thanks.

  18. Thanks, Stirling. Btw, as far as “fair use” goes, I did go to a lot of trouble getting copyright permission to use all of the photos we show in _Jane Manning James: Your Sister in the Gospel_ and anticipate doing it again for the upcoming doc.

  19. You make a very good point about Mormons being pre-occupidied with trivial issues when it comes to their portrayal of the church. It’s doesn’t speak well of the church that it’s members are so uniformly preoccupied.

  20. Interesting that everyone pointed fingers at me and laughed when I had serious reservations about “The Mormons” for PBS from the start. My comments at Millenial Star blog was resoundingly dismissed.

    Now, here it is that I am not the only one questioning how “balanced” this is going to be. And, like I said then, it is because I don’t trust PBS productions.

    I could still be proven wrong. I want to be proven wrong. However, I won’t hold my breath.

  21. Jessawhy says:

    I watched both trailers, and was pleased with the PBS one and nearly disgusted by September Dawn. I admit to being a novice about the Moutain Meadows Massacre. I know I could google it, but can anyone point me to a good (and concise) history of this event? I’m sure I’ve learned about it at some point, and I’m aware of the stigma surrounding it, but the trailer was just so dramatic, it was hard to tell what was going on.
    I am excited about the PBS documentary and hope that we do get a good audience, as the trailer was much more positive than I had imagined.
    great thread, thanks!

  22. Quadruple whammy. Don’t forget the upcoming Lifting the Veil of Polygamy, by Living Hope Ministries. Trailer available here.

  23. molly bennion says:

    Margaret, How can we get a copy of the Jane Manning James film?

  24. Jessawhy: Here is the Wikipedia article. I won’t vouch for it’s accuracy in detail but it’s a good place to start.

  25. Nate Oman says:

    Jessawhy: The standard treatment of the MMM is Juanita Brooks, The Moutain Meadows Massacre. The most recent treatment is Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets, which strenuously tries to make the case the Brigham Young ordered the killings, a claim that Brooks and virtually every other scholar who has studied the issue rejects. There is also a forthcoming book on the massacre written by three employees of the Church Historical Department, which will be based on a lot of restricted documents, etc. which will also be worth reading. The manuscript for that book, as I understand it, has been sent off to Oxford University Press and ought to be out later this year.

  26. Some other info as well, on MMM.

  27. Molly–I’ll send you a copy of the DVD. It should be available at Deseret Book, but I don’t think they have too many copies. http://deseretbook.com/store/search?search=Jane+Manning+James I’m headed up to the office of one of our filmmakers, since I gave him the wrong hard drive and he can’t download the material we shot this weekend. I’ll pick up a copy of _Jane_ for you.
    For anyone else interested, it’s called _Jane Manning James: Your Sister in the Gospel_. It’s just 17 minutes long.
    I agree with Nate that Juanita Brooks is the best source for information on the MMM. There are fictional accounts as well– _The Ferry Woman_ and Marilyn Brown’s _Wine Dark Sea of Glass_ (among others). The big issue seems to be Brigham Young’s involvement–or non-involvement. It appears that the _September Dawn_ movie has an opinion on that subject, drawing logical conclusions from the teaser.

  28. P.S. Comments #8 and #22 make it a quintuple whammy. Add “Big Love” and we’ve practically got a WHE event going on.

  29. Jayneedoe says:

    “The most recent treatment is Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets, which strenuously tries to make the case the Brigham Young ordered the killings, a claim that Brooks and virtually every other scholar who has studied the issue rejects,”

    I disagree. Bagley does suggest there is evidence BY ordered the killings, but admits there’s no way to know for sure.

    Where Bagley “strenuously tries to make the case” is that BY was extensively involved in the cover up.


  30. We Mormons are especially incapable of objectivity, and even less capable of believing in others’ objectivity. The Church is true, the Prophet is a prophet, and both are subject to human failings.

    We believe it was God’s will that blacks not receive the Priesthood, without considering HIS reasons were temporary, probably political, likely had to do with the Civil War and the survival of the Church’s fledgling society, and if Church leaders would have seriously sought the Priesthood for those people a hundred years sooner, it likely would have been granted. (Isn’t the Doctrine and Covenants almost entirely answers to requests?) Does that make the Church or its leaders racist? I don’t know. It doesn’t make it false, or doesn’t mean the Church isn’t led by Christ, it just means we don’t always follow well or soon enough.

    We reference the Martin Handcart company ad nauseum, (at least to the point it makes me ill), yet can’t acknowledge that the people kept the faith DESPITE the gross errors in judgement by church leaders which cost them so dearly. That just shows the importance of maintaining our own line of communication and revelation to God. Keep the commandments? Yes. Follow my Bishop to hell? I don’t think so.

    We don’t understand that “any publicity is good publicity,” and the reasonable, rational, “honest in heart” who see it will be able to discern truth from error and bias, will ask honest questions, and will be led in the right direction by God, who is more powerful than the puny media.

    Mormons, especially Utah Mormons, are too insecure, too prone to look for validation from outside themselves. They are quick to say, “Donny Osmond and Steve Young are Mormons,” like that impresses anyone. So are Andy Reid’s indicted boys. So is Mitt Romney who is embarrassing himself with his waffling on issues. I’ll never forget when UCLA went to the NCAA basketball finals and the Church News had a profile on their star player, Kiki Vandeweghe: “Kiki Vadeweghe, a teacher in the Beverly Hills Ward.” Are we so desperate we hold up a 22 year old TEACHER as a model to the youth of the church? How long had it been since he’d attended church?

    So, I’m looking forward to the PBS documentary. I’ll probably watch it when I have time. I expect to see an angel or two portrayed in it, but I doubt one will appear in my or anyone elses living room as a result. I do suspect that it will cause people to think, to talk, and maybe get people to actually dialogue with their LDS friends, or more accurately, get their LDS friends to dialogue with them.

    If it shakes someone’s faith, all the better. Maybe that will cause them to reestablish the foundations of their testimony. When Mark Hoffman produced the “Salamander Letter,” with its potentially faith-shaking contents, I didn’t care, I just thought, “The Book of Mormon is true, I’ve felt the Spirit, I can ride this one out,” and of course, it was found to be a forgery. I trust the honest in heart will respond the same way to this “documentary.”

  31. LW:

    We believe it was God’s will that blacks not receive the Priesthood

    Speak for yourself. I don’t believe that. I think it was all a stupid racist mistake by Brother Brigham, and not the last one he made either. The mistake was compounded by well-meaning but racist apologists who adopted some really insipid theological explanations for the practice, instead of questioning it loudly, as they should have.

    Does that make the Church or its leaders racist?

    Yes. It’s not even a close question. But they were not bad people in other ways.

    It doesn’t make it false, or doesn’t mean the Church isn’t led by Christ, it just means we don’t always follow well or soon enough.

    Or even bother to ask!

    “Donny Osmond and Steve Young are Mormons,”

    For a long time, I thought they were both gay.

    but I doubt one will appear in my or anyone elses living room as a result

    Unless, of course, that’s where your TV is.

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