It’s the story of two strong women, women who bucked societal norms and forged a powerful, if not unlikely friendship. A free black woman and the white wife of a preacher. Of course, not just any preacher, but Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I’m talking, of course, about Jane Manning James and Emma Smith, subjects of the new film, “Jane and Emma.”
In an era still a couple of decades away from the start of the Civil War, racism was rampant, including among members of the new church. To their credit, neither Emma Smith nor Joseph held those attitudes. “All are alike unto God,” was not just a motto but something they lived — and they expected others to do the same.
While some of the film’s dialogue is fictionalized, the circumstances faced by Jane — and by Emma — are real. In one scene, a sister in Nauvoo comes to Emma’s home and asks if she could borrow “her girl.” Emma bristles and says, “She is available for hire.” The woman sniffs and says, “You PAY her?!” Then, she turns on her heel and walks out the door.
In another scene, a brother asks Jane, “YOU were baptized?” Jane responds, “I remember clear as anything. It was very wet and very cold.” He then launches into a lecture about the blood of Cain until he is interrupted by Joseph Smith who walked in mid-diatribe and corrected him.
Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes, best known as the “Sistas in Zion” and authors of “Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons,” are two of the movers and shakers behind the new movie, “Jane and Emma.” It’s a film that does not shy away from uncomfortable topics — racism, polygamy, rape and even the muting of women, topics that are still timely today.
The movie also shows how Joseph and Emma wanted to seal Jane to them as a daughter. After Joseph was murdered, the next church leader, Brigham Young, refused to honor Jane’s request for a posthumous sealing as their daughter. He finally allowed her to be sealed to the Smiths — as their servant. In spite of the offense, Jane had a firm testimony and died a faithful member of the church. Her temple work was not done until 1979. Black pioneers faced challenges — and so do black members today.
Tamu has shared her own painful experiences encountering racism in the church. The first time she was called the racial slur n----- was at a church school. Not surprisingly, it shocked her and then rocked her. She needed to know if there really was a place for her in “God’s choir.” A teacher sent her to the college library to research black Mormon pioneers and that is where she “met” Jane and changed her life.
Six members of our family went to see “Jane and Emma” at the Salt Lake City premiere on Wednesday night. It was powerful and beautiful and sparked some good (and painful) conversation. As I asked my 9th-grade daughter — adopted from Ethiopia — what she thought of the scenes that showed some of the racism, and shared some of Tamu’s experiences, she said, “That’s happened to me.”
“What has happened to you?” I asked. “Being called the n-word.” Dammit. That is so not OK. The conversations being sparked by “Jane and Emma” NEED to happen, and that includes the role of strong women.
Written, directed, produced and acted by women, “Jane and Emma” is the first Utah film to ever receive the “ReFrame Stamp,” an award given by Women in Film, the Sundance Institute and IMDBPro. This award recognizes and promotes gender-balanced films and television shows, and is earned by meeting a handful of requirements calling for women in key roles like starring, directing, producing and writing. It is also the first faith-based film to have this distinction. A minimum score of 4 is required. “Jane and Emma” scored 13.
Melissa Leilani Larson wrote the script, Chantelle Squires directed the movie, and Jenn Lee Smith and Madeline Jorgensen produced this powerful movie. Danielle Deadwyler masterfully plays Jane Manning and Emily Goss does the same in her role as Emma Smith.
Take your family, take your friends, take your neighbors and take yourself to this movie, THIS weekend. As an independent film, opening weekend will determine whether or not there is a second weekend. Do it. You won’t regret it.
Holly Richardson welcomes the hard conversations, especially when they lead to much-needed changes.