New film ‘Jane & Emma’ captures the friendship between a black convert and the beloved wife of Mormonism’s founder

Many modern Mormons see black LDS pioneer Jane Manning James as heroic. What they may not know is what an unlikely, even risky, friendship the 19th-century free black member had with the first lady of Mormonism, Emma Smith.

In an era when tensions over slavery later would explode into the Civil War, Jane and Emma’s personal and religious bond cut across racial and social lines. Their mutual affection ran so deep that both wanted to be “sealed” as family for eternity. Emma proposed the newly announced LDS ritual of “adoption” to Jane while they were together in 1840s Nauvoo. Jane declined the offer but then spent the rest of her life trying to make it happen.

Theirs is a rare, real and riveting tale, says Tamu Smith, a black Mormon writer and speaker, but one “that has been lost to our history.”

So when Excel Entertainment Group executive Arthur VanWagenen approached Smith with a proposal for a movie about Jane, she insisted it would be better to focus on this black-and-white duo.

Smith made VanWagenen repeat after her three times, “Jane & Emma, Jane & Emma, Jane & Emma.”

Three years later, that is the working title of a low-budget but richly layered film about the pair. It is in the final phases of production and due out in the fall — with Smith and her “Sista in Zion” colleague, Zandra Vranes, serving as consultants.

The way Jane and Emma interacted, VanWagenen says, could be “a template for how modern Mormons should behave.”

(Courtesy Excel Entertainment) Actors portraying the Manning family are seen on the set of the upcoming feature film tentatively titled "Jane & Emma." The Mannings were kicked off a steamboat traveling to Nauvoo because they were black. They walked 800 miles to join the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City.

Re-creating the past

For 15 days in March, This Is the Place Heritage Park on Salt Lake City’s east side came alive as 1844 Nauvoo, the Illinois gathering place for far-flung members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Andrus home was transformed into the Nauvoo Mansion/Hotel, where the Smiths and Jane lived. The Pine Valley Chapel served as the site where the Mormon founder delivered parts of his famed “King Follett discourse” (though the real setting for it was in an open-air service). Men in period hats and women wearing bonnets and long skirts strolled the muddy streets of the historic village, dodging food carts and camera equipment. The cast and crew chowed down in the Social Hall each night after shooting wrapped up.

The filmmakers also traveled to today’s Nauvoo for two days to capture authentic-looking exteriors there by the Mississippi River.

Beyond preachy

For five years, VanWagenen had searched for potential LDS projects “that are a little less didactic, a little more honest, and more serious in their craft.”

He wanted to showcase “strong female characters in prominent roles in a story that would start some fresh conversations, and bring some marginalized voices front and center.”

“Jane & Emma” — played by Danielle Deadwyler and Emily Goss, respectively — fits that bill.

The action is set on June 28, 1844, the day after Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob that stormed the Carthage Jail, where he was being held. After Smith’s body is returned to his home, Emma watches over it alone — until Jane appears later to help her.

Their joint story is told in flashbacks, including Jane’s conversion in Connecticut; their first meeting after the black woman, her son and other family members move to Nauvoo; and the Smiths’ warm welcome and treatment of them. It also tells of Emma’s struggles to cope with her devastating loss and self-doubt. Throughout the long night, the two examine issues of racism and polygamy, with Jane wondering whether the slain Mormon prophet’s promise to extend the “blessings of eternity” to her has perished along with him.

In fact, after Joseph Smith died, conditions did change for black Mormons — dramatically.

(photo courtesy Excel Entertainment) Jane Manning, played by Atlanta native Danielle Deadwyler, in the upcoming film tentatively titled "Jane & Emma."

Emma stayed behind in the Midwest, while Jane and her husband, Isaac, trekked with the main body of Latter-day Saints to the West. It was in Utah that Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, introduced a racial ban, barring black men and boys from the all-male priesthood and women and girls from Mormon temples. (The LDS Church is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of that prohibition this Friday at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.)

Jane wanted to be “endowed” and “sealed” in an LDS temple, but, after repeated requests, was “adopted as a servant into the Joseph Smith family,” according to historical sources. She was never allowed into the temple during her life, but was endowed by proxy in 1979.

The movie won’t be a “panacea for the church’s or people’s ills,” VanWagenen says. “It will be a different film to different people.”

Some will argue Joseph Smith is portrayed as being too good, he says, while others will complain that the mention of polygamy doesn’t go far enough.

Or that the film is too artsy, too slow, too small.

“I just hope that, deep down, believing Mormons will be willing to venture out to try something new, to see it is faith-affirming,” VanWagenen says, “and that others will see some of the good that Joseph and Emma were preaching.”

Jenn Lee Smith’s expectations are the same for this movie as for all “character-centric films: to show authentic human relationships in all its messiness and complexity and beauty.”

The Asian co-producer, who has experienced racial insensitivity at the hands of fellow believers, hopes the movie “will somehow aid in making our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible regardless of skin color, especially within the Mormon faith.”

(Courtesy LDS Church) Jane Manning James

Revealing the unexpected

It was a simple statement in an obscure historic journal that launched Tamu Smith on a quest to uncover the relationship between the prominent wife of a Mormon prophet and a determined and devout black member.

The diary reported that when the Saints were leaving for the Great Basin, it was “hard to tear Jane and Emma apart.”

That intrigued Smith, so she and Vranes did more digging.

They discovered that Emma’s aunt had married a black man. And that after the Mormons fled Nauvoo, Emma took in black children who had been put on a boat and sent to the Illinois city.

“Here you have two women from two completely different places whom society already told don’t belong together,” Smith says. “You can’t be sisters; you can’t even be friends.”

When Emma spoke to the newly organized LDS Relief Society, she told the women that when they were baptized, they were supposed to “divest themselves of anything that isn’t in tune with the gospel,” she says. “She’s telling them, ‘We come here to get rid of all that baggage.’”

That includes, Vranes says, racist attitudes.

“As you look at Joseph Smith’s life and the things he said about race,” she says, “you watch him change through the gospel.”

She wonders if that wasn’t due, at least in part, to the influence of Emma. And Jane.

The film may make some Latter-day Saints uncomfortable, but this inclusiveness was Mormonism’s founding reality, Vranes says. “They were bold, and we are going to have to be bold, willing to go beyond the grain of what’s comfortable.”

These two women made it work in an even more divided world, she says. “Why can’t we?”

(Courtesy Excel Entertainment) Jane Manning sits with the Partridge and Lawrence sisters in a scene from the upcoming feature film tentatively titled "Jane & Emma."