Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black does not expect a lot of positive feedback from Latter-day Saints about his miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven,” because it not only recounts the infamous Lafferty murders in 1984 but also ties them to the faith’s history.
“There is no world in which Mormons on the whole are going to embrace this show,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We — and I say ‘we’ because I grew up as a Mormon — are very uncomfortable with other people examining who we are, who we’ve been. Period.”
In the first episode, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), the husband and father of the victims, tells the lead investigator, “Our church breeds dangerous men.”
The miniseries is “inspired by” Jon Krakauer’s 2003 book of the same title. It is, in part, a true-crime drama about the horrific 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Laffery (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in their American Fork home.
The FX-produced series, which starts streaming Thursday, April 28, on Hulu, centers on a fictional police detective (Andrew Garfield), a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose faith is shaken by what he uncovers during his investigation.
The first two episodes stream on Thursday; the remaining five will premiere one at a time over the next five Thursdays.
[Read Scott D. Pierce’s review: Miniseries about the Lafferty murders can be tough to watch, but worth it.]
“Under the Banner of Heaven” plays out like a mystery, although the killers — Ron (Sam Worthington) and Dan Lafferty (Wyatt Russell), Brenda’s brothers-in-law — are familiar to Utahns.
The miniseries dives into not just the murders but what led up to them, all the way back to 19th-century history. The portrayal of the 1984 investigation into the brutal murders includes multiple LDS Church officials who, if not actually obstructionist, were less than helpful. And Pyre questions whether that was on orders from the First Presidency.
That, Black said, he learned when he interviewed several of the detectives who investigated the murders.
Feels true to Utah
In “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Black and his team create a world that feels very true to Utah — to Utah County — in the mid-1980s. (Black is the creator/executive producer/showrunner. He wrote Episodes 1 and 2 and directed Episode 5.)
The miniseries is replete with Latter-day Saint references, most of the everyday sort: Baptismal interviews, CTR rings, the Tabernacle Choir, the First Vision, early morning seminary, bishops, stake presidents, “Lamanites,” missionaries, family home evening, and people calling each other “brother” and “sister” in both church and non-church settings.
There are darker things as well — such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the One Mighty and Strong, blood atonement, outer darkness, excommunication and allegations that Brigham Young’s bodyguard shot the governor of Missouri.
And there’s a consistent throughline that the motive behind the murders can be traced back through Mormon history, and that the modern church is intentionally trying to obscure that history. “They’ve hidden our truths with the secret combinations,” Allen says in Episode 1. “If you really still believe your God is love, then you don’t know who you are.”
And there are a few things that locals are going to find odd. Brenda (who was raised in Idaho) seems to be under the impression that Brigham Young University is in Salt Lake City, and that the Laffertys were famous there. There are multiple references to them as “Utah’s Kennedys” and “Mormon royalty,” although most Utahns — certainly most who didn’t live in Utah County — were unaware of them until the murders.
The show’s promotional materials refer to this as a murder that took place in “the Salt Lake Valley,” which is in error. American Fork is in Utah Valley.
Why Mormonism? Why him?
The dive into Mormonism — both mainstream and offshoot fundamentalists — is because the religion was so closely tied to the murders. Ron and Dan Lafferty had been Latter-day Saints, and when they broke away, they claimed they were following paths set down by the church’s early leaders. It’s a bizarre story that’s hard for even church members to understand.
Garfield said that, in addition to his own admiration for Krakauer’s book, he was “convinced right away” to sign on because Black is “so connected to the subject matter and the material.”
“Frankly, I felt like I was the guy to do it. I don’t know who else could have,” Black said. “I have both an insider and an outsider approach to it. I grew up in [the LDS Church]. Most of my family is still in it. And I’m still close with a lot of people who are active in the church.
“At the same time, I’m no longer active. And for a lot of reasons that are probably quite clear.”
Black is openly gay. He’s half of one of the most high-profile gay couples in the world; his husband is British diver Tom Daly, who won a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics. And the church strongly opposes same-sex marriage.
Having been a member of the LDS Church, which outlawed polygamy in 1890, Black understands that members are still often confused with polygamists. “There’s not just one kind of Mormon,” he said. “We tried incredibly hard to make the distinctions between cultural Mormons, between modern, contemporary Mormons, and fundamentalist Mormons.”
In one scene, the local police chief says, “Outsiders do not understand the difference between our church and the fundies. The polygamists. We struggle against that perception every single day.”
And in another scene, Pyre compares the FLDS to the Mafia, and says they “marry off 13-year-old girls to 70-year-old men to be raped and enslaved and to be punished if they seek help.”
It’s not a documentary
“Under the Banner of Heaven” tells three interrelated stories — bits of Latter-day Saint history from Presidents Joseph Smith to John Taylor; the story of the Lafferty family before the murders; and the story of the investigation into the murders.
It’s not a documentary, however. It’s a dramatized version of reality. “The bulk of the fictionalization” is in the murder investigation, Black said. “But even the bones of that story are based upon the trial transcripts and the information that was shared by people who actively investigated the case. …
“You have to make it entertaining. It’s a television show. I have 7-and-a-half hours to tell a story that started in the early 19th century and ended in August of 1984.” So he compressed some storylines, combined some characters and changed some names, “but I do think it is truthful. I know I’ll be challenged on that. I know that’s going to be a debate and I’m ready to have it.”
It’s not unlike what he did with the story of gay activist Harvey Milk in “Milk,” for which Black won his screenwriting Oscar; former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover in “J. Edgar”; and “The Real World” cast member and gay activist Pedro Zamora in “Pedro.”
The murder investigation revolves around a character Black created — Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield). He’s somewhat of a composite character, a husband and father of two young daughters, increasingly troubled by what he learns about the church — past and present — as the investigation unfolds.
The character of was constructed “in a way that may help illuminate the challenges and the contradictions within the church,” Black said.
Black spent a good deal of time with several detectives who investigated the murders, who told him that local church officials were less than helpful. And that they suspected the local officials were acting on the orders of higher-ups in Salt Lake City — up to and including the First Presidency.
Black was “purposely vague” about who he talked to, having promised not to reveal their identities. “They were very helpful, but I was asked to not depict them specifically,” he said. “They didn’t want to have to revisit this yet again.”
He also changed the name of American Fork to East Rockwell, to further distance the miniseries from the real investigators. He chose the name Rockwell because of an historical figure mentioned in the miniseries: The infamous Orrin Porter Rockwell, bodyguard to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
A lot of research
Black did “a tremendous amount of research” for “Under the Banner of Heaven” — including two years, a decade ago, when he devoted a great deal of time to the project. He came to Utah and interviewed members of the Lafferty family. He went to Idaho to talk to Brenda’s family, who gave him access to her journals and to letters she wrote to her sister.
He went to the Utah State Prison and interviewed Dan Lafferty. (Ron was still alive at the time — he died from cancer on Nov. 11, 2019, still on death row — but prison officials told Black he was “not in a good state at that point.”)
“How do I set out to depict someone like Dan Lafferty without meeting him?” Black asked. “I needed to depict him as he was — as close as I possibly could. Because if I just made him the stereotype of a sociopathic monster, well, that’s not half as terrifying as it ought to be.”
The miniseries doesn’t offer excuses for what Ron and Dan became, but it does, perhaps, offer some explanation. In one scene, to punish the brothers for not doing their chores, their father beats their dog to death with a baseball bat. In another scene, he beats Dan.
Black needed to know what drew other people to follow Dan, both his family members and others. “And when I met him, with glass between us, I understood,” Black said. “He was incredibly charming.”
Defending Krakauer’s book
Krakauer’s book, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” came in for no small degree of criticism from the Latter-day Saint community. Cogent arguments were made that much of the violence he plucked from history was the result of violent attacks against church members; that his attempts to tie the Lafferty killings to Mormon history were weak; and that he displayed a disregard — if not actual disdain — for religion in general.
When the book was published in 2003, church-affiliated scholars wrote lengthy critiques of Krakauer’s prose and process. In a typical comment, author Robert L. Millet — now the emeritus dean of religious education at BYU and then the Richard L. Evans professor of religious understanding at BYU — called the book “not only a slap in the face of modern Latter-day Saints but also a misrepresentation of religion in general.”
Black holds the book in high regard.
“There are little things here and there that you can point out that people can quibble about,” he said, “but for the most part, Jon Krakauer did great work getting it right.” It’s “a wonderful book, in terms of Jon Krakauer’s ability to communicate Mormonism to non-Mormons. I don’t think he wrote it for Mormons.”
Black said he did not read it “as an enemy to the church, nor an active member of the church.” And the book was “just a jumping-off point” for him. “In order to turn it into a television series that’s 7 and a half hours long, I needed a lot more.”
His ‘Mormon’ background
Black grew up in the LDS church, as did his father. His mother was a convert. He described himself as “a devout Mormon” until his mid- to late teens. “It’s in my bones,” he said.
And he recalled that when he was growing up in Texas, people asking him how many moms he had. “So I understood the sting of such assumptions from a very young age. And I loved my church. I was not one of those kids who didn’t want to go to church on Sunday,” Black said. “But the more my church revealed itself to me, the deeper the troubles I saw.”
He said he waited “a very long time to see if the church would change course, and it hasn’t. And so [‘Under the Banner of Heaven’] is a conversation about that.”
Black said there are many things “in Mormonism that are worthy of being protected. Things about Mormonism that I miss — family, community. And at the same time, there are things that I am critical of.”
And Black insisted that he had no vendetta against the church. “This isn’t an attack,” he said. “This is a conversation that’s long overdue.”
Inside the temple
In addition to the suggestion that church leaders hindered the investigation into the murders, there are other scenes that will cause controversy in the Latter-day Saint community. In one, Ron Lafferty’s teenage daughter cuts the marks out of his temple garments after he’s excommunicated — he puts the garments on and stands in front of a mirror.
In another episode, there’s a reference to “secret LDS handshakes” in the temple. In another, Brenda and her soon-to-be sisters-in-law are inside a temple. Brenda says, “A woman older than Jesus’ sandals just put oil very, very close to my private parts.”
They talk about blood atonement, a disputed early church teaching that some sins required execution and the shedding of blood onto the ground. And they’re shown vowing to keep temple secrets at the cost of their own lives, complete with a throat-slashing motion.
Black makes no apologies for including the scene. “You need to know that young men and women were taught that in the temple. You need to learn that, until recently, that was a part of the ceremony in order to understand this case,” he said. “Because let me tell you what — a young woman and her 15-month-old baby had their throats cut.”
Black said he included the scene not to shock but to inform, adding, “If you decide to include violence in your temple ceremony, I am not going to respect your temple ceremony.”
Why look to the past?
When Allen Lafferty tells Pyre, “Our church breeds dangerous men,” he’s not just talking about fundamentalist Mormons, he’s talking about the mainstream church. “I think you can simply look at the history of the church and understand that that’s been true,” Black said.
In the second episode, Pyre tells Allen that Latter-day Saints wouldn’t kill someone “for stepping out of their place,” as the Lafferty brothers believe Brenda did. Allen replies, “It’s all over our history. And our scripture. God told Nephi that it’s better for one man to perish than for a whole nation to dwindle in unbelief.”
He’s not wrong. That’s God telling Nephi to kill a man in “The Book of Mormon.”
Krakauer’s detractors have long argued that his attempt to link 19th-century violence to 1980s murders was a stretch, if not entirely invalid. Black sees it as an attempt to look toward the future. “You can’t fix the present or the future if you don’t understand where the problem is coming from. If you don’t understand the source,” he said. “This show is going to make it clear what some of the sources are.”
There are scenes from church history showing Joseph Smith and other early church leaders involved in violent exchanges. There are flashbacks to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, when church members and some Native Americans murdered at least 120 settlers traversing southern Utah. There’s a flashback to the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper in 1844.
Not all the violence depicted is perpetrated by church members. There are flashbacks to church members being attacked, including a chilling re-creation of the Haun’s Mill Massacre, when a Missouri mob murdered 18 Mormons in 1838. There’s a flashback to Smith being murdered at Carthage jail in 1844.
One flashback ventures into conspiracy theory territory, suggesting Brigham Young helped facilitate Joseph Smith’s murder so that he could take control of the church and preserve polygamy — because Young feared Emma Smith was going to persuade her husband to abandon plural marriage.
Black said he felt “a responsibility to my Mormon brothers and sisters” to bring “Under the Banner of Heaven” to the screen. “Somebody’s got to shout it loud that things have got to change,” he said. “And so I do this for my mom more than anyone, because she loves her church. And at a certain point couldn’t reconcile why she was being treated as a servant in this life and eternity when she had such a capable mind.”
He anticipates criticism from church members. “I know it will be challenged because I know who I’m starting this conversation with,” Black said. But he’s “hopeful that some will be able to see in it what’s good about being Mormon and see what should be changed that still has not changed since 1984. And in this ever-changing church with that great potential of that promise, perhaps it’s time for another revelation.”
And he’s aware that active members of the church aren’t likely to embrace that view, and that at least some will be offended by “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
“If the truth is offensive, I think some people may be offended,” Black said. “But I also think that once we are empowered with truth, once we have good information, we can make better decisions. And I hope that’s what comes of this show.”
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