In a telling interview in Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, a woman named Tamu admits she doesn't mind explaining her religious faith to blacks, but she does mind explaining her race to fellow Mormons. This documentary is serving both purposes. It dares to show black audiences that African-Americans have embraced Mormonism from the beginning and have stayed and grown in their faith in Christ despite mistreatment inconsistent with Christianity or Mormonism's own egalitarian principles. And the documentary also dares to show to Mormons the high cost of their racism and the flimsiness of those rationalizations (sometimes propagated from the top) that kept black Latter-day Saints from the full blessings of church membership for a century.
This film balances on that knife's edge of revealing the painful story of institutionalized racism within the Mormon church while honoring the deep-seated faith of black Mormons and their contentment with the church despite this history. It could have been an expose, but its filmmakers instead chose a rhetoric of reconciliation (these are white member Margaret Young --pictured above-- and black member Darius Gray--authors of the important trilogy of historical fiction on this topic, Standing on the Promises). The overall effect of the film is not so much to be disgusted with Mormonism's flaws but to be in awe at the strength of this minority within the church.
I measure the importance of this film in part by the kind of conversation it produced between me and my 17 year-old son on our ride home. He had never heard of the prejudice against blacks in the faith (we had lived in south London for a time and attended church with a congregation including many Anglo-Africans who were fully respected and integrated among the white British members). My normally mild-tempered child became indignant. Shouldn't we Mormons be the most tolerant and loving of all peoples? And why would the Lord allow such a hurtful policy to exist for so long? I got to tell him about how institutions get to repent, too, and how people can still be subject to the cultural prejudices of their time while otherwise doing a lot of good. And I got to explain to him how the conservative nature of the church can be hurtful (retaining a policy like denying blacks the priesthood) and helpful (resisting the fluctuating mores about sexuality or family life, for example). And I got to talk to him about how the institutional church does indeed test our faith as well as nurture it, and this history only gives us an occasion to be more humble and examine what we do today that might one day embarrass our descendants. These were good things to discuss.
The response to this film among those viewing it Saturday at the film festival in Orem was overwhelming and positive. Plenty of stories were exchanged about ongoing racial prejudice in the church, but the conversation was a constructive one, not a plaintive or condemntory one, and I credit this to the filmmakers and their candid and careful approach. Nobody Knows respects those that have been deeply hurt, those that ardently believe (black or white), and even those outside of the faith that have had reasonable problems with what in retrospect can only be seen as an unreasonable policy.
For me there were two highlights of the film. The first was when a non-Mormon AME preacher of great reputation reported his meeting with President Hinckley in Salt Lake City not long ago. President Hinckley apologized frankly to this church leader for the ways that the Mormon church had contributed to racial prejudice. This seemed fitting both with the character of President Hinckley and with the need for "truth and reconciliation" about this issue in our more enlightened day. I think it will only do much good for others to learn of this action by the current Mormon prophet. Shouldn't we all have such humility to own up to our individual or collective mistakes?
The second highlight for me--and something my son was deeply impressed by--was the comment by one black brother about his race being a mission that he embraces. Without overstating it, he compared himself to Christ who also accepted a mission that required great suffering. This man (a former bishop) did not come off as a martyr, but as someone who felt his race to be a blessing, not a curse, despite the fact that it has brought suffering. And that speaks to the film as a whole. There is no sense of martyrdom here. There is candor, faith, and even some humor along the way. I only hope that the non-LDS audiences that are soon to see the film at two upcoming film festivals will view it as positively, and I look forward to this documentary becoming a featured and much-discussed and distributed film among the Latter-day Saints who so dearly need to have the kinds of conversations that I got to have with my son upon exiting this thoughtful and affirming film.