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“I Was Told That It Was True, and It Was a Marvelous Day”

By: David G. - March 09, 2008

Such, more or less, was Darius Gray’s summary of his initial reaction to the 1978 revelation.

Today was the Ogden screening of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. I along with Christopher, Ben, and our female companions drove up from Provo to support Margaret and Darius. Margaret told us afterward that we couldn’t use such words as amazing or incredible to describe this documentary, but such words do indeed fit. But I’ll humor her and give a more substantial response to the film.

First, I was struck by the ability of the film makers to concisely tell the story of black Mormons from the early 1830s to the present day. From Jane Manning to Tamu Smith, black women and men were shown to be deeply spiritual and incredible Latter-day Saints despite the adversity of racism among church members.

Second, I thought that the film makers succeeded in their goal to present the film within frameworks of reconciliation rather than confrontation. Yes, racism in the church has an ugly history. Yes, things still need to change. But while Brigham Young, Orson Hyde, and other early (white) Mormon leaders are shown to have started the Priesthood Ban, these men were neither vilified or demonized. The focus throughout was on the struggles and triumphs of black Mormons, not the horrible things that were said by nineteenth-century leaders.

Third, I was pleased to see a good balance between highlighting the lives of ordinary Mormons and expert commentary. Darius is of course the heart and soul of this documentary. I felt the power of his testimony, and I came away admiring him a great deal. Paul Gill’s story was also touching, as were those of several other black members. Newel Bringhurst, Ronald Coleman, Armand Mauss, and Greg Prince all received ample time and provided excellent discussion of the social and historical implications of the place of blacks in the church.

Fourth, paraphrasing Chris’s words, “the music was awesome.”

I did come away with a few questions though.

First, the movie’s narrative, at least how I understood it, placed the origins of the Priesthood Ban in 1852 within the context of slavery in Utah. Scholars however for years have shown that the earliest sources we have for the ban come from 1847. Despite Connell O’Donovan’s recent work on Walker Lewis and his involvement in the origins of the ban, Lewis was not even mentioned in the film.

Second, the narrative describing the coming of the 1978 revelation did not include any context concerning the building of the Brazil temple and the accompanying problems with identifying which Brazilian Saints had African blood, which I believe is fairly well accepted by most scholars of the revelation. The narrative however was clear that the brethren as early as Heber J. Grant, and especially David O. McKay, believed the ban was a policy, not a doctrine, and were open to ending the ban.

Third, I was wondering if Darren Smith was involved in the film at all. He did not appear in any footage. As a fairly prominent contemporary black Mormon, I was a bit surprised not to see him.

But these questions do not in anyway detract from my view of the film. The producers pulled no punches and did not shy away from sensitive issues (although more context could have been added in places). This is certainly not a work of  ”apologetics.” Rather, it is a quality work that I really hope gets a wide audience in the church. I suspect that most white members are not fully aware of the history of the Priesthood Ban, especially Joseph Smith’s approval of the ordination of black men to the priesthood. I think that with more exposure to this history and the experience of black members, residual racism will continue to be broken down. I was pleased to see that Margaret and Darius were able to get permission to show the clip of Pres. Hinckley in conference denouncing racism, which suggests to me that the church is aware of the film and is supportive of it. I look forward to this film’s showing on PBS or the History Channel and its release on DVD.

For earlier posts on the priesthood ban or on this film, see here, here, here, and here.

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29 Comments

  1. Boy I really want to see this movie every time I hear about it. It sound like they did a marvellous job.

    Comment by JonW — March 9, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  2. I wish I could have been there–it sounds like a ground breaking film. I am very surprised that the film does not deal with the issues attendant to the temple in Brazil. I’m sure that Margaret is fully aware of its importance, which makes the ommission that much more mysterious. Hopefully she will stop by and fill us in. Thanks David, for the review.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 9, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  3. Thanks David! It was wonderful to see the JI folks there.
    To answer your questions:
    1) I agree with Armand Mauss that the first OFFICIAL statement about the priesthood ban took place in 1852, though some of the vocabulary which would ultimately be used to support it did appear in 1847 in the context of the Pete McCary affair.
    2) Walker Lewis is alluded to in the film, and I plan on interviewing Conn to get the full, fascinating story for special features. We quote Brigham Young saying, “We have one of the best elders, an African, in Lowell.” That elder was Walker Lewis, of course. So many of our choices were determined by the need for a tight focus. Do we tell the remarkable story of Sam and Amanda Chambers? Len and Mary Hope? Now that we know so much more about Walker Lewis due to Connell, do we include that? Our answer was to put other stories in special features so that the focus could be tight. We really hit only Elijah Abel and Jane James, and have photos of many other pioneers.
    3) Question on the Sao Paolo Temple: Again, an issue of focus. We had whole sections (such as the events in 1969 with Hugh B. Brown and Harold B. Lee) which we TRIED to put into the documentary. We found that there were simply too many unfamiliar names for the audience to keep track of. We debated doing a chart and opted, again, to reserve the 1969 events (as well as the extremely important 1879 events, where the issue of blacks and the priesthood was raised after Brigham Young’s death) for special features. Same with the Sao Paolo Temple. Not sure how much we’ll include of that in special features. We wanted the focus to be on the revelation itself, and we wanted much of it to be in President Kimball’s voice.

    Even I was surprised by some of our choices.
    And of course, we leave out even more in the 56:40 version (for broadcast). Nonetheless, I feel very good about the film. We’re still tweaking, but I feel good about it.

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 9, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  4. It sounds like you should feel very good about it Margaret. Thanks for answering the questions.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 9, 2008 @ 12:53 pm

  5. Oops–I didn’t answer one other question: Darron Smith
    We do have footage of him, but, as with so many of our wonderful interviews, we ended up not using it. No judgment on him. We were throwing diamonds away all over the place. Remember, we made a 72-minute film from 50+ hours of interviews. We were constantly “killing [our] darlings.”

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 9, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

  6. Margaret, I envy the experience but not the need to make choices like that.

    Thanks so much for doing this.

    Comment by Ray — March 9, 2008 @ 1:21 pm

  7. It was a great experience, Ray.
    And frankly, on this relaxed Sunday (as opposed to what this past week has been), it’s rather fun to have a forum to talk about the film without the pressure of getting ready for a festival.

    When some see the film, they might wonder why we let Darius tell a whole story about his first day in Provo, Utah in 1965. (“And then I realized they were staring at me. I was the darkest thing moving down the street. And for the first time in my life, I started looking for another black face.”) Why toss some important historical data and keep that story? The answer is in our real objective: to build bridges. Historical facts won’t do that, but personal stories will. The documentary does include a lot of well-known scholars talking about the history, but ultimately it is people telling their own stories as Black Mormons which empowers the film. I knew all along that Darius would be the steel thread through it all, and it was my writer’s sense of focus what understood that from the get-go. A reader/audience member wants to follow someone’s journey, not simply observe a crowd or hear a lecture. So Darius appears throughout, as his own story progresses from learning he won’t be able to hold the priesthood as a Mormon, to hearing about the priesthood revelation, to stating, “[My Mormonism] has affected everything in my life’s path–everything.” There are others who tell their stories, and we hope that by the end of the film, the audience has a sense of who these people are. Nobody comes with an agenda to persuade or dissuade; they come as themselves, speaking from the power of their own lives.

    That might explain why the decisions to not go into detail on the events of 1969, 1879, Brazil, etc. were made. The personal stories guide the narrative, and the history undergirds it. (And it is really poignant to hear Armand Mauss and Newell Bringhurst speak of their personal encounters with the policy, rather than just as scholars explaining the origins, etc.)

    Thanks for providing this forum. This is a nice break! Perhaps a bit self-serving, but nice.

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 9, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  8. 1) I agree with Armand Mauss that the first OFFICIAL statement about the priesthood ban took place in 1852, though some of the vocabulary which would ultimately be used to support it did appear in 1847 in the context of the Pete McCary affair.

    I’m no one to argue with Armand Mauss. I’d be hesistant though to say that the 1852 statements are the first official ones, just given the problem defining what “offical” really means. The 1852 statements were certainly, to my understanding, the first public statements, but Parley P. Pratt and others are talking about the ban in 1847 in private communications. I think it just comes down to presenting the origins of the ban as a result of miscengenation and lineage, or in the context of the early slaver debates in Utah territory.

    re: #2. I do remember now that the letter was quoted. I’m glad that you quote that letter. It really hits home that even BY in 1847 was not against giving blacks the priesthood.

    re: #3. That makes complete sense. Thanks.

    re: Focusing on Darius. I have no complaints there. I think it really provides the strength of the film and I’m glad you did include that much on him.

    Comment by David G. — March 9, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  9. I can look for big-picture historical details (like the Brazil temple issue) in any number of places. I can’t, however, hear Darius telling that story any place else. It’s an excellent editorial decision.

    Comment by SC Taysom — March 9, 2008 @ 5:37 pm

  10. Great work, Margaret. I wish I hadn’t had to leave town, as I was planning to see the documentary in Ogden. Sign me up for a DVD when the time comes.

    Comment by smb — March 9, 2008 @ 6:00 pm

  11. I neglected to mention in the initial post that we also saw M* and FAIR’s Keller there. Paul Reeve and his wife were also in attendance.

    Comment by David G. — March 9, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

  12. Count me in along with the others singing praises to the documentary. It was truly moving. My wife, my uncle-in-law, and myself loved every minute of it.

    Comment by Ben — March 9, 2008 @ 10:05 pm

  13. Nice review, David. And thank you again, Margaret, for this fine film. My wife and I both enjoyed it and we look forward to a possible showing on TV and the DVD release.

    Comment by Christopher — March 10, 2008 @ 1:41 am

  14. Margaret, any word on the SIFF here in Seattle yet?

    An interesting side note from the Northwest. We had a lot of press coverage up here of the opening of an African-American Art Museum in an old schoolhouse over the weekend. Lots of TV coverage, lots of celebratory congratulations.

    What so far has received only slight exposure is the inclusion of an African-American genealogical research center in the museum, and that the church was a major sponsor, providing computer equipment and expertise, and will be heavily involved in staffing the center with volunteer workers. Apparently, the church and local leaders had been working on this for about 10 years, with this finally becoming part of the Museum. I hope to get over there and take a look in the next week or so.

    Comment by kevinf — March 10, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  15. Kevinf–we won’t hear from Seattle for awhile. I don’t have terribly high hopes because the festival is so huge and competitive, but I am still hopeful. Unfortunately, the copy I sent them had problems with color correction and didn’t include our most recent edits. So if we don’t get accepted, we’ll just blame the color correction!

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 10, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

  16. Margaret,
    Beth and I enjoyed the film very much. Thanks to you and Darius for telling this important “untold” story. (Sorry we had to run afterwards) It seems that there are other stories yet to tell. What are your plans for that 50 hrs of unused film besides special features on the DVD?

    I was pleased to see you taking Mormon Doctrine to task in the film. One of the interviewees asked for, at the very least, Elder McConkie’s BYU statement being included in new editions of the book. While that is a good idea, it left me unsatisfied ultimately because I think a much stronger message needs to be sent and the only way to send it is for the offending passages to be removed altogether or for the book to just go out of print. Is there any movement in that direction at all? Who owns the copyright and at whose direction does it continue to be printed. If the Catholic Church as the great and abominable church can be excised, why not the racist folklore? What is the reluctance and from whom? If Deseret Book, I hate to think that profit margin wins out over principle? What are the roadblocks on this front?

    Thanks again for telling such a beautiful story.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — March 10, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

  17. Paul–it was so good to see you and Beth. We don’t yet have plans for the 50+ hours, other than the special features, but we did have a meeting with some folks in the Church Historical dept. When I mentioned the tapes in Rick Turley’s presence, he perked up immediately and asked what the plans were for them. So I suppose we might donate them to Church Archives. I don’t know.

    My own opinion on Elder McConkie’s statement in 1978 is that it has a marvelous global view of how we progress as a Church. However, if you really read it closely, all he is rejecting is the notion that Blacks won’t hold the priesthood until after the millennium. He had obviously been wrong in stating that, and so he was taking it back. I think his words about the revelation “erasing the darkness of the past” are more profound than even he realized. But he clearly didn’t view the revelation as reversing the folklore, because it’s all still there in MD–and remained when he had the power to change it upon its reprinting in 1979. We purchased the book the same day we scanned it. That was just a few months ago.

    I have been told that MD will be allowed to go out of print and that a multi-authored text would replace it, but I don’t know how reliable that information is. Somebody high up in Deseret Book said he knew nothing about such plans. My personal lobbying to get the book off the shelves or at least modified has been met with very chilly responses.

    Stirling Adams is the expert on _MD_. He has told me that the McConkie family owns the copyright.

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 10, 2008 @ 4:19 pm

  18. sounds like an interesting film. I’ll have to check it out.

    Comment by Chris — March 10, 2008 @ 10:07 pm

  19. I’ll be seeing the film this Friday here in Claremont at Sunstone West! I’m very excited. I was watching the trailer and there were my parents and sisters! Quite the surprise. They are only in one photo but they had no idea.

    Comment by Jordan W. — March 11, 2008 @ 12:43 am

  20. Jordan, who are your parents? You can e-mail me at BYU if you want that private. Do they go to Genesis?

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 11, 2008 @ 11:32 am

  21. [...] This excellent review article that is on the Juvenile Instructor blog site titled “I Was Told That It Was True And It Was A Marvelous Day” provides personal insights to viewing the new film. Additionally, there are several comments as well. Review of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons [...]

    Pingback by Review of Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons | Blacklds.org — March 11, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

  22. I anticipate a dvd release. Don’t let us down. ;)

    Comment by BHodges — March 12, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  23. I live in the South West of the UK (If I said Pirates of…Yup! I Live there!). We hear much of the local Cornish saints who were converted and started the long and often perilous journey to the Salt Lake basin (many were miners. But hear very little on how people of African descent were accepted into the Church. I would love to see this film and learn more of a history that sadly, many of us are ignorant of.

    Anyway, *Hugs* from across the pond!

    Comment by Heather Taylor-Nicholson — March 16, 2008 @ 8:12 pm

  24. Margaret-

    Is there a copy of the film now available on DVD/Blue Ray Disc? I would love to get a couple of copies- one for myself, and one for a close friend who is Black, and has had some questions.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this!

    Comment by Kent — May 25, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  25. We will likely release the DVD towards the end of summer or early fall. We will be filming out last special feature in San Francisco. It’ll feature Connell O’Donovan, the expert on Walker Lewis.

    Comment by Margaret Young — May 26, 2008 @ 10:23 am

  26. Dear Brother and Sister Gray – With a desire to give our Tehachapi ward’s new black convert sources to go to for information and additional support, I also found answers to some of my own concerns. Thank you both for building bridges of understanding between lds members of every background. Thank you for doing so in a way that strengthens our testimonies. I am really looking forward to seeing the DVD.

    Did Darius ever receive the letter I sent him through Deseret Press? In February 2005 I wrote and shared some of my own personal racial experiences after reading the three volumes of “Standing on the Promises.”

    Comment by Patricia Waring — May 26, 2008 @ 5:05 pm

  27. Darius’s wife is named Leslee. I am his co-author. My husband is Bruce. Just for clarity’s sake.

    I can’t say for sure if he received your letter, Sister Waring. I hope so. Deseret Book usually forwards responses to us. Thank you so much for taking the time to write. Darius’s health has been a bit of an issue for the past several years. If he didn’t respond, it was likely due to health issues.

    Most here probably know that our next screening of the documentary will be on Saturday June 14th at 12:30 p.m. at the Museum of the African Diaspora, as part of the San Francisco Black Film Festival. (www.sfbff.org ). Please spread the word if you have friends in the bay area!

    Comment by Margaret Young — May 26, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

  28. [...] 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 [...]

    Pingback by By Common Consent » Review: Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons — June 18, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  29. [...] “I Was Told It Was True, and it was a Marvelous Day” [...]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Teaching About the Priesthood Ban and Official Declaration 2 in Sunday School — December 7, 2009 @ 8:59 pm