Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons": important documentary about race and religion


On Tuesday, April 14, Howard University PBS Station WHUT aired an abridged version of the documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons”, which had aired at the Foursite Film Festival in Ogden, Utah, produced and directed by Margaret Young and Darius A. Gray, from the University of Utah student documentary program.

The film is segmented, with the first section called “The Beginnings” and a later section called “The Movement”. It traces a few African Americans who made the migration to Navoo in the 19th Century, including “Abel” and then Jane Manning James.

The film consistently covers the quixotic problem that the Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) has had with race. The Church maintains that man is judged for his own acts, not for original sin. Others have characterized Mormonism as a “religion of works” rather than “faith”. But then how can you maintain that people of another race are to be judged “inferior” and kept out of the priesthood without doing anything wrong? Brigham Young, in 1852, would make a pronouncement that the descendents of Cain were not permitted in the priesthood. He also used the Cain argument (which biologically does not make sense to modern science) to justify bringing slaves.

The movie goes on to see African Americans struggling with the idea that they are “less valuable” because of their “pre-existence”. Darius Gray then gives the story of his own conversion. Despite his initial exclusion from the priesthood, he was to accept the “Unlocked Gospel” and to join, as by personal revelation. (I can think of other exclusions, like “don’t ask don’t tell” – where you can “hide”, but that’s different. But notice the title of the film -- the first two words!)

Other African Americans tell of turning Mormon missionaries away, out of offense, and yet the realize that missionaries, at around age 19, spend their own money and risk persecution and peril to profess (perhaps proselytize) their beliefs.

Here is another writeup, from “Feminist Mormon Housewives.”

Here is another blog by or about director Margaret Young.

A link to my review of the PBS Miniseries "The Mormons" from April 2007 is here.

1 comment:

Margaret Blair Young said...

We're honored to have you note our film. Thank you! Actually, Darius and I haven't been students for many decades, but we did get a grant from the University of Utah. With the goal of PBS broadcast, we created the 56:40 version of the film while we were creating the 72-minute version. in the 72-minute DVD, we also include 300 minutes of special features--which covers unheard of history, like the Mormon journey of Q. Walker Lewis, one of the first Black abolitionists in Boston. He worked with David Walker. Pastor Cecil Murray also gives more detail about the remarkable Biddy Smith Mason. Great stories, but we couldn't fit everything into the film and still maintain a tight focus.