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.