Oscar winner defends ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ against criticism from church-owned newspaper

Dustin Lance Black sounds a bit peeved at premiere event in Salt Lake City.

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Sam Worthington, writer-producer Dustin Lance Black, actor Tyner Rushing and actor Andrew Garfield pose for photos at a premiere event for the FX/Hulu miniseries "Under the Banner of Heaven," at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas on Monday, April 25, 2022.

Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black was in Salt Lake City for a premiere of “Under the Banner of Heaven” on Monday night, and, to all appearances, he was a happy man — except when it came to “a certain paper here in the Salt Lake Valley.”

Both before and after a screening of the first two (of seven) episodes of the miniseries at the Broadway Cinemas, Black expressed his displeasure with a negative portrayal of him and his miniseries that was posted earlier in the day by the Deseret News, which “claimed that I was very angry.”

The opinion piece, by Hal Boyd, is headlined that “Too much real-life anger comes out of Tinseltown. It’s time for Dustin Lance Black and company to let go of the angst toward Latter-day Saints.” And Boyd concludes: “We must work to foster genuine peace. But it won’t happen if our entertainers continue to sell us fear and resentment.”

The FX-produced miniseries about the horrific 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, which starts streaming Thursday on Hulu, is “not an easy show,” Black acknowledged. “It’s not something you step into without some thought, without knowing that there might be some pushback.”

[Read Scott D. Pierce’s review: Miniseries about the Lafferty murders can be tough to watch, but worth it.]

And at a panel discussion after the screening, Black said he feels “a different emotion than anger … when I think about the Mormon faith. You know, I grew up loving this church. I grew up loving my Mormon family. Most of my family still lives within a 20-mile radius of here. I still appreciate the warmth and love that I feel when I’m here.”

Black, who left the church in his teens, was in Salt Lake City with his husband, Olympic gold medal-winning diver Tom Daley, and three members of the “Under the Banner of Heaven” cast: Andrew Garfield, who stars as fictionalized detective Jeb Pyre, who investigates the Lafferty murders; Sam Worthington, who stars as Ron Lafferty; and Tyner Rushing, who portrays Emma Smith, the wife of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith, who is seen in flashbacks to church history.

“Under the Banner of Heaven,” which was “inspired” by Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, is the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s journey from mainstream Mormonism to fundamentalism and murder. And it relates the murders to violence throughout LDS history.

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Writer-producer Dustin Lance Black, left, and actor Andrew Garfield appear at a premiere event for the FX/Hulu miniseries "Under the Banner of Heaven," at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas on Monday, April 25, 2022.

Black said that in the decade he spent working to bring “Under the Banner of Heaven” to the screen, he “became something that is far more dangerous than anger in our faith. I became curious. I am not angry. I am asking questions.”

And he pointed out that there are “good Mormons” in the miniseries, including Brenda’s family, the Wrights, whom Black found to be accepting and loving, and multiple members of the police force. And both he and Garfield pointed to the family of Detective Pyre (who is a fictionalized, composite character).

[Related story: Oscar winner doesn’t expect Latter-day Saints to love his miniseries about the Lafferty murders.]

“I think that’s a really beautiful, sensitive portrayal of this … kind of everyman, modern Mormon family,” said Garfield, who stars as Pyre. “And I can’t imagine anyone being upset by that aspect of the show, personally.”

“Oh, get ready,” Black interjected.

And, while he said he wasn’t angry, Black sounded at least peeved when he echoed a question Pyre asks in episode 5 while investigating the murders: “When I hear the church’s newspaper get defensive about portrayals, my question is … what kind of Mormons are you defending? If you are being defensive, you either haven’t seen [the miniseries] yet — you’re basing it solely off the book — or you are defending two brothers who took a sharp turn towards fundamentalism and used it to rationalize strangling a mother and beheading her 15-month-old [daughter]. Is that what the Deseret News was so upset about today? Because I went after them? Then they need to look into their own heart.”

He dedicated the miniseries to “courageous” Brenda Lafferty, “who dared to challenge the status quo.” Garfield said Brenda and Erica Lafferty were the “North Star for this project,” and that he and the rest of the cast and crew were “determined that their lives” would “not have been lost in vain.”