OREM The story behind "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons" is a compelling one and a story that needs to be told, even shouted from the rooftops.
Fortunately, this film makes a good start on that mission as it explores the history, the faith and the bigotry that has existed since the origin of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Not to imply that this is a Mormon-bashing kind of movie.
Quite the contrary, the simple but firm faith of the black members' interviews comes through clearly. There's no attempt made to assign blame or pummel the LDS gospel over what happened as church officials tried to deal with members who came into the church with slaves in tow. There's more of an attempt to explain why people associated and in many case, still do black Mormons with the "mark of Cain."
While there certainly is some hurt and question about why black Mormons were denied priesthood ordinations and temple blessings for so long, the people on-screen told their stories without bitterness. They recited their experiences, their beliefs and their testimonies candidly, making for a fascinating 72 minutes.
From the first black man's and woman's tales of Elijah Able, ordained an elder in 1832, and Jane Manning James, who traveled west with the early saints to Latter-day Saints like producer Darius Gray, Utah County homemaker Tamu Smith and singer/entertainer Alex Boye, it's evident that faith and hope overrode their immediate earthly concerns.
It's also clear that black Mormons have brought not only diversity and color to what is perceived by some as a "white man's church" but a new sense of unity and compassion, something needed for a church moving to bring in members from a worldwide missionary drive.
Through a series of on-camera interviews with people like Martin Luther King III, jazz musician Paul Gill, and attorney-bishop Keith Hamilton, along with historical accounts from the early days of Mormonism, the story is powerfully told.
It examines racial prejudice and mistaken perceptions about slavery, the black world and heaven. For example, Smith tells about a kindly temple worker who wondered how she would recognize her in heaven because there she, of course, wouldn't be black anymore.
It's a story the world needs to hear.
At the film's premiere at the 7th Annual LDS Film Festival at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem, Gray and co-producer Margaret Young said they deliberately avoided making the film about celebrity black Mormons or African converts, but focused rather on the average black Mormon's experience.
"We're not African Mormons. We're black Mormons," Gray said.
Young said the issues of bigotry and racial prejudices are still alive today, although black LDS men have been receiving the priesthood since 1978. Just this month, members of a congregation in Louisiana asked that black members attend another ward, Gray said.
Young and Gray said the question now is where things go from here.
"This is the Lord's church, and it's for all of us," he said. "This documentary is now done. It was an opportunity to let blacks have their say."
Young said the expectation is the documentary will move to cable distribution. It's already scheduled to screen at a number of other film festivals, including in Dallas and San Diego.
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