Moroni comes to the big screen, but some LDS scholars see some big problems

The feature-length romance has raised eyebrows among some historians, who say the film perpetuates harmful stereotypes.

(Freestyle Releasing) Actors Nora Dale and Darin Scott co-star in "The Oath," a feature-length romance based on the Book of Mormon character Moroni.

The film begins with a moody shot of a tree-canopied shoreline, then: “Legend tells of an ancient grudge.”

What follows is a 100-plus-minute romance between the Nephite warrior-prophet Moroni of Book of Mormon fame and a woman, played by part-Choctaw actress Nora Dale, from an enemy group known as the Lamanites. Written and directed by the Latter-day Saint actor Darin Scott, who stars as the film’s hero, “The Oath” will hit more than 650 theaters nationwide Dec. 8.

For Scott, the project, more than a decade in the making, represents a sacred work, one that demanded nearly everything — including, at one point, his house — from him.

For some scholars, who haven’t seen the movie but have viewed the trailer and read a plot summary, the resulting story is a mashup of modern conservative politics and tired stereotypes about Native Americans. The outcome isn’t just predictable, they say, but a perpetuation of racist tropes.

‘Unexplainable feelings’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty are depicted in an earlier Mormon Miracle Pageant in Manti in 2019. This pageant is no longer held.

Scott’s original plans for a movie about the Book of Mormon, the foundational scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, didn’t include the pared-down cast and story of “The Oath.” Instead, the actor, whose career has included minor roles in “Yellowstone” and the Oscar-nominated “127 Hours,” set out 13 years ago to create a sweeping war epic based on the character Captain Moroni found in the middle of the Book of Mormon.

In the years since, he has spent more than one long night on his knees, begging God for the resources and the help to create the movie he felt “wrought upon by spiritual, unexplainable feelings” to make.

“There were many times,” he said, “that this project tested [my family and me] to the limits.” He occasionally considered giving up. But the gnawing sense that the heavens wanted this story told kept him from quitting.

To get by, he sold real estate, including his own house, to help fund the project.

A breakthrough finally came when he launched a Kickstarter campaign, which allowed him to generate a 14-minute movie short, “Reign of Judges: Title of Liberty.” This, in turn, allowed him to attract enough funding for a small-scale, feature-length film, and “The Oath” was born.

Instead of big-budget battle scenes, the movie depicts the Moroni found in the scripture’s final pages, an army general and the last surviving Nephite, offering shelter to and ultimately marrying a battered woman he finds injured in the woods. Named Bathsheba, she is a runaway from Moroni’s greatest enemy, an evil king played by the actor Billy Zane.

Along the way, Moroni teaches Bathsheba his language, how to dress more conservatively and — after her failed attempt to seduce him — the importance of chastity. She converts to Moroni’s Christian faith and, after their marriage, becomes pregnant.

Throughout the film, Captain Moroni — who led earlier Nephite soldiers against Lamanite forces and someone Scott said he’s always found “very inspiring” — appears to various characters as an armor-wearing angel.

Curses, Lamanites and brownface

The Book of Mormon represents “difficult source material” for anyone trying to adapt it to the silver screen, said Randy Astle, a scholar of Latter-day Saint films, largely due to the text’s “problematic” treatment of race.

A controversial passage portrays God cursing the Lamanites with dark skin as a result of their wickedness. For years, the volume’s introduction taught that Native Americans could trace their lineage back to this group. Now, it simply states that Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

According to Astle previous attempts at telling the Book of Mormon through cinema have “floundered” on their treatment of race. He said “The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd,” a 2000 film produced by the church, “actually put its white actors in brownface.”

For his film, Scott hired Native American actors, including Eugene Brave Rock of “Wonder Woman” fame, to play Lamanites in “Reign of Judges” and “The Oath.”

Brave Rock, who is Blackfoot from the Blood Tribe of Siksikaissksahkoi, said that before he agreed to the projects, he asked some family members who happened to be Latter-day Saints whether they thought he should take on the work.

“They told me,” he said, “to pray about it.”

His decision to get involved ultimately rested on Scott’s willingness to incorporate the Blackfoot language into parts of the script in the short film and, later, in “The Oath.”

“The thing I wanted to bring to the table,” he said, “was language.” That he was able to do so was enough for him to feel good about his role.

(Freestyle Releasing) Eugene Brave Rock, right, appears alongside fellow actor Billy Zane in the movie "The Oath." Brave Rock said it was important to him to bring his Blackfoot language to the film.

Arcia Tecun is an adjunct University of Utah anthropologist and member of the Mayan diaspora in North America who has written about the experience of Indigenous Latter-day Saints who identify as Lamanite.

Tecun said Scott’s depictions of Lamanites, based on what he reviewed, match up with those found in official and unofficial Latter-day Saint art and film — depictions he described as a “bloody mess.”

“It’s the reproduction of the notion of civilized and primitive,” he said, “and you see that in the aesthetics.”

What concerns him most, though, is Scott’s treatment of Bathsheba, which he said resurrects racist, colonial tropes in the relationship between her and Moroni — in particular “this kind of white male fantasy of a darker woman wanting them and being sexually available.”

He said the story also seemed “oblivious” to the crisis of “missing and murdered Indigenous girls, women and other femme-presenting folks in Indian country.”

He added: “For some it feels like it’s only fiction, but it’s layered with all these very real, pressing issues.”

Moroni meets Donald Trump

Captain Moroni is having a moment. From Donald Trump rallies to the Jan. 6 protest at the U.S. Capitol, the Book of Mormon commander has made several appearances on large, conservative public stages over the past three years.

Also present at the Jan. 6 protest: Darin Scott.

“It was actually a wonderful experience,” Scott said, adding that “the way that event was reported by the media was so the opposite of what I experienced.”

He emphasized that he did not enter the Capitol that day and did not witness any violence.

The news of Scott’s presence at the protest did not surprise Latter-day Saint historian Ben Park.

(Freestyle Releasing) Darin Scott wrote, directed and stars in the movie that took him more than a decade to make.

“LDS conservatives are drawn to Captain Moroni,” he said, “for the same reason that evangelical conservatives are drawn to” William Wallace, the Scottish knight played by Mel Gibson in the 1995 movie “Braveheart.”

“Both figures,” he said, “present a masculine ideal who balances militant dedication, muscular zeal and religious devotion.”

In recent years, scholars have shown, Park said, that “conservatives have come to embrace the image of the warrior, rather than the humble servant, as the apex symbol for righteousness. They are constantly at war — war with their inner demons or with their external enemies.”

Amanda Hendrix-Komoto, a historian of Mormonism who has written about gender and the Latter-day Saint tradition, echoed this thought.

“There is a general attempt by conservative Christians,” Hendrix-Komoto said, “to make a more masculine Christianity that plays into their ideals,” including Christian nationalism.

Latter-day Saint leaders have addressed this political ideology, including apostle Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the governing First Presidency and next in line to lead the global church. During a speech last year in Rome, he voiced support for protecting the freedoms of all faiths and stated that “religious rights cannot be absolute.”

Astle in particular despaired at what he saw as the politics underpinning not just “The Oath,” but also Tim Ballard’s recent box office smash hit “Sound of Freedom.”

That the “loudest voices in American Mormon cinema support Trump so openly shows,” he explained, “how separated much of Mormon society has become from its moral roots.”

A message of unity

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) As the only surviving Nephite, a people of the ancient Americas, Moroni finishes writing about his people’s destruction in this image from the faith's Book of Mormon Video series.

When asked why he chose to depict Moroni over other characters from the Book of Mormon, Scott said, “I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by these heroic figures who were able to maintain their honor in viciously dishonorable times.”

The film, he said, is one “about unity and goodness” that he believes has the potential to bring people together in “the most divisive time that I can ever recall living in.”

Ultimately, this connection is what he hopes people come away with.

“We live in a time,” he said, “when people need to come together and need to be able to hear each other.”

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