Emma Smith: My Story, a review

 

by EmilyCC and Jessawhy

Emma Smith: My StoryArmed with a giant bag of popcorn, we went to see the movie, Emma Smith: My Story, a few weeks ago. Since we’re not real movie critics and therefore, know very little about cinematic effects, we’ll stick to our thoughts of the story and characters. In short, from our feminist perspective, Emma Smith is worth seeing but not everything we’d hoped for.

Seeing a movie focused on Emma was a real treat (better than the popcorn). The movie clearly illustrates that Emma gave up and put up with every bit as much as Joseph did. The lack of respect, the lack of money, the doubt—Emma suffered through it all, too. Often, in the D&C or Church history, Emma can often be an afterthought. Emma reminds us that her story is just as important as his.

Emma is portrayed as a strong, independent woman. She snaps off witty comebacks to a pesky unbeliever and men (this happens a few times in the movie) who try to put her in her place as little more than a bystander to her husband’s work.

While reflecting on this movie, the quote about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in high heels keeps coming back to me. I know it’s not a perfect analogy. But, Emma and Joseph shared a life in which they worked for the same goal, but Emma did it without ever (as far as we know) seeing the visions Joseph saw or witnessing the presence of the Golden Plates. Dancing backwards and in high heels, indeed.

And, although there’s not much more detail than an anecdotal story about her second husband’s affair, it does Mormons good to be reminded that Emma didn’t die when Joseph did.

Throughout the film, Emma’s struggles are center stage. We watch her father disown her, her babies die, and her ability to carry on when Joseph leaves (for missions, jail, or death).

But, the struggle that we’ve most wondered about is her marriage. It’s hard to imagine what the real relationship was between Joseph and Emma, but this is most certainly not it.  Joseph often seeks Emma’s advice, they are shown taking care of the house together, and she is shown educating him about music and writing. However, the portrayal of their marriage is idyllic and feels false. We missed seeing some real character development between the two as all of their interactions were positive. Additionally, polygamy is glossed over. From memory, it goes something like this:

Emma: There are still places and rapids in the river.
Julia (her daughter): Polygamy was one of those rapids for you. Wasn’t it?
Emma: Yes, it was.
Julia: And, yet, you’ve never spoken of it.
Emma: What could I say?

Maybe this is too big to try and tackle, maybe we should be glad it was mentioned at all. But, this seems like the easy way out.

As the marriage feels too contrived, so does the portrayal of Emma’s inner conflict. Emma played the always supporting, although often despairing wife of the barely mortal Joseph Smith. Her reaction to her father’s anger about her marriage to Joseph feels predictable and superficial. The inner conflicts Emma faced must have been overwhelming, but we never see her doubt. We never see her succumb to those feelings.

Occasionally, there was a bit of poor acting , but these spots were pretty easy to overlook. Emma and Joseph, overall, were both quite engaging actors..

There were also times were we felt like Joseph started to “steal the show.” Sometimes, the movie focused on him for too long, but overall, it felt like he usually stayed were he was supposed to, as a supporting character to Emma.

One primary complaint is that this movie seems to have been made for a Mormon audience. The movie is made up of a series of vignettes of Emma’s life told in flashback (with some parts out of order). For someone without a general knowledge of Mormon history, the plot would have been hard to follow. Also, some scenes felt like they were straight out of a CES video. (Not that that’s all bad. Emily plans on showing it when she teaches seminary again)

Nevertheless, this was an emotionally-charged movie. We both wept a few times. After the film ended, the audience sat in silence for minutes; the emotion in the air was quite palpable.

Ultimately, Emma Smith: My Story, is a nice story and a valiant effort; it tugs at your heartstrings and makes you want to hug a child or write a letter to your mother. But, we believe that this film had the opportunity to be fantastic, with just a little more honesty, and perhaps a little edginess.

Jessawhy

Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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17 Responses

  1. Thanks, jessawhy. I still haven’t seen the movie, and all the reviews I’ve seen so far have been by men critiquing the historical content. Yours is a welcome viewpoint.

  2. mraynes says:

    Thanks for the review, Emily and Jess! I was so sad when I couldn’t go with you. I figured that this movie would be a lot like you described, good but with a few drawbacks. Mostly I’m just glad that some attention is being paid to Emma. I think it is often easy for us to overlook women in Mormon history, especially if they remind us of problematic parts of our past. Thanks for the review and for reminding us of a fascinating woman in our history.

  3. Creatura says:

    “Emma” was playing at a nearby theater in Mesa, and the owners had to extend its run because Mormons poured into the theater to see the film. I was there on a Monday night to see “Iron Man” a second time (yes, I know…I admit to having trouble choosing Mormonism as my primary form of entertainment), and witnessed the number of LDS folks who were trying to get into a sold-out showing. I haven’t seen the film yet, so I’ll have to just ask some questions.

    What is your memory of Mormon attitudes about Emma? I joined the LDS Church in 1972, and–at least in my location (TX)–she was a little like “a hiss and a byword,” a woman I was told NOT to emulate. Do you feel that the film is an effort to rehabilitate Emma’s “spoiled identity” in the LDS community? If so, does it succeed? What factors do you see contributing to the film’s production at this time and our willingness to accept and participate in that rehabilitation by seeing the movie?

  4. Jessawhy says:

    Ardis, Emily and I had opposite experiences writing the review. The more I wrote about it, the less I liked it, and the more she wrote, the more she liked it. Kinda funny, actually. I wish I knew more about the history of these characters. I’ve read a few books (halfway through In Sacred Loneliness and Rough Stone Rolling) but I have a very loose grasp of the Restoration. I’d be interested to hear a historical review.
    MRaynes, we missed you, too! It was nice to visit with Emily’s MIL and sister about their thoughts for a few minutes after the movie. Like Creatura mentioned, Emily’s MIL pointed out that Emma’s image within the church has had a dramatic make-over in the last 30 years. I, for one, am glad to hear it.
    Emma is a wonderful character who deserves a lot of credit for what she went through. Honoring her in this film is a step in the right direction.
    gotta run, crying children.

  5. SingleSpeed says:

    1. What would Emma want to have shown?
    2. What would we show if we want to truly honor her?

    With my limited knowledge, I understand that Emma rarely spoke of polygamy while she was alive, and even fully denied Joseph’s involvement until her death. If we honor her, do we omit this part of the story because it is apparently how she wanted to be remembered?

    On the other hand, if we cherry-pick bits and pieces of her life that we like and piece them together to make a story that WE like, are we really honoring who she really was? If we discount her decisions that many mainstream LDS might frown on, then it’s not a movie about who Emma was, it’s about who we would have liked her to be.

  6. eTigg says:

    From my experience in the church (since 1991), it seems to me that Emma’s memory and accomplishments have been treated poorly. For some there seems to be a mental competition between Emma and Eliza Snow, with Eliza inevitably coming out on top.

    I have read several (flattering and unflattering) books on Emma, and it seems to me that she was a remarkable woman who simply reached the end of her rope in June of 1844 – and she just hung on to the end for dear life. I can easily see how the actions of Brigham Young towards her could be so badly misconstrued by a woman as deeply distraught and bereaved as she was during the waning months of the Saints’ time in Nauvoo. Do I think she would’ve been happier in the long run had she taken her family to the Salt Lake Valley like Hyrum’s widow did? – absolutely. That’s 20/20 hindsight for which she had hardly a prayer of being able to comprehend at the time.

  7. Ah, I just realized that Emily was a coauthor of this review (the aggregator just mentioned jessawhy). Didn’t mean to ignore you, Emily.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    SingleSpeed, excellent questions that I wish I had answers to–truly shows just what the creators were up against.

    eTigg, what are your favorite Emma books? I have to admit I’ve only started the beginning of Mormon Engima, but I’ve always been interested in Emma. I’ve just never really known where to go to learn more about her.

    Ardis, you’re so thoughtful…I didn’t think twice about it.

  9. Thanks for sharing this critique. I have been wanted to get an idea of how they did this without putting Joseph first. You made me look forward to seeing it even more.

  10. Dane says:

    I just watched this in the theater here in Salem. What struck me more than the specific stories of Emma and Joseph was how the movie told the story of the founding of the church.

    It seems that every film history of the Restoration follows a certain formula of recounting events — the First Vision, the translation of the plates, the organization of the church, moving to Kirtland, building the temple, persecution, moving to Missouri, persecution, Liberty Jail, moving to Nauvoo, persecution, the Martyrdom.

    While these events are central to the history of the Restoration, the problem is that it creates a static narrative that reads like a history book, linking places, people, and dates with no cohesive structure.

    If I could have made one change to the movie, it would have been to give motivation behind the stories. What is driving the saints to gather? What is the reason for building the temple? Why do they persevere? I feel that, in the tumult of individual events, there is a great and holistic vision driving and guiding the development of the church, and that that vision gets overlooked. The trials and triumphs seem to lack the meaningful context to explain why they are important.

    That said, I enjoyed the movie 🙂

  11. Jessawhy says:

    Dane,
    Thanks for your comments. I agree that the motivation behind the events is often hard to capture on film, and _Emma_ could have done better at portraying that.

    (As a side note, I have some LDS family in Salem. Do you know any Oberans?)

  12. KiriClose says:

    awesome post! I’d like to see it especially after this review.

  13. sarah says:

    I am Emma and Joseph’s fourth great granddaughter and I am glad you enjoyed the movie. I would also like to mention that if you wanted to learn more about Emma, the most accurate book to read is called “Emma and Joseph” Written by Gracia Jones, she is the second great granddaughter of Emma and Joseph. She has spent years researching journals and archives to make sure her book and all the information is correct and accurate.

  14. southern girl says:

    My daughter (9) was shown the movie in Activity Days, I didn’t watch it yet, she didn’t pay much attention but I wish I could see it before her. I wasn’t aware of what the activity was about. Anyways, I just hope to be prepare as a mother to teach my two daughters the right way, not trusting anymore to everything is told at church anymore, I have to know what to do!!!

  1. July 12, 2008

    […] resources to inspire you (or your class): Emma Smith: My Story Speaking of Faith podcast with Sister Joan Chittister (because we love our Catholic […]

  2. September 25, 2008

    […] gives her experience with studying her great-great-grandmother’s history. The new movie about Emma’s life mentions the blessing, and I also came accros this book which has a copy of the text included, […]

  3. March 12, 2011

    […] resources to inspire you (or your class): Emma Smith: My Story Speaking of Faith podcast with Sister Joan Chittister (because we love our Catholic […]

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