Guest Post: Jane and Emma Movie Review by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye
Jane and Emma is an independent film distributed by Deseret Book, opening in Utah this 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th (Thursday through Sunday). It is written and produced by Latter-day Saints, including Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes (see preview). The story is based on the historical friendship between Jane Manning James (a well-known early black Latter-day Saint) and Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet (see a news article about the film and the history here).
The film depicts Jane Manning and Emma Smith on the evening after the death of Joseph Smith, watching over the prophet’s body in the Smith home. Jane’s experiences of conversion, walking over 800 miles with her family members to join the Saints in Nauvoo, encounters with racism in the pre-Civil War era, and life as a member of the Smith household, are related in flashbacks. The relationship between Jane and Emma is depicted as intimate and characterized by mutual respect. The film also explores Emma Smith’s conflicted feelings as the devoted wife of the man who had called on her and the Latter-day Saints to make so many painful sacrifices, while also offering wondrous things to believe in and hope for. The story also alludes to Jane’s eventual marriage to Isaac James and trek west to Utah.
I found the film beautiful and moving. First, it was encouraging in terms of Church institutions’ increasing comfort with complicated and “messy” history. I am impressed with Deseret Book for distributing this film. Such institutional support for more reliable church history can also be seen in the multivolume history project, Saints, sponsored by the Church History Library.
Second, the film was also inspiring in terms of my own Latter-day Saint faith. Without a doubt, the historical legacy of Joseph Smith’s plural marriage is difficult for many Latter-day Saints. Once you know this history, it is difficult to see Joseph through another lens. And yet, this film shows both this view (including the presence of Joseph’s plural wives, and Emma’s pain and anger) and another perspective—Joseph Smith’s prophetic and completely countercultural position, in his time and place, of welcoming people of all races and backgrounds into fellowship with the Latter-day Saints.
The film also powerfully expressed the pain black Latter-day Saints feel when they encounter ugly racism within the Church, and quietly modeled how we can do better as a people. In the film, Jane’s well-known plea, “Is there no blessing for me?” is caught up into the wind and rain on a stormy night. The official affirmative answer from the Church did not come during Jane’s lifetime. What the film suggests is that Jane’s own experiences of God’s power, and her steadfast love for others, were the basis for her lifelong faith as a Latter-day Saint, despite the pain she endured at the hands of fellow church members.
The film should also be engaging and accessible to people who are not church members (this is what they should play in the Legacy Theater in order to win public respect in an age with relatively low tolerance for propaganda). It offers insight into the founding tensions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as the coexistence of a revelatory, countercultural ethos and a hierarchical, patriarchal, theocratic church structure.
The major criticism I anticipate is that some people who are familiar with Joseph Smith’s doctrine and practice of plural marriage, which even the official essay on lds.org calls “an excruciating ordeal” for Emma Smith, will question Jane’s final pronouncement of Joseph Smith as a “beautiful man.” Nevertheless, the film’s depiction of Joseph Smith’s expansive vision of racial diversity within God’s kingdom is historically accurate, at least in terms of his actions and statements in the later period of his life. My sense is that the filmmakers have chosen to fully open just one can of worms (race), though they acknowledge the reality of another (plural marriage). This is a story centered on Jane.
Some Latter-day Saints may feel suspicious of the film in quite the opposite way, by questioning the validity of the depictions of racism and plural marriage within the early Church. The Gospel Topics essays on lds.org would help in this regard. It might help to remember that a few months ago at the official church event commemorating the end of a racist policy, Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, called for everyone to repent of the sin of racism. The fact that Deseret Book is the distributor for Jane and Emma should reassure many Latter-day Saints who want to learn church history in a context of faith.
The film is appropriate for all audiences, though kids under twelve might get bored by the many dialogue scenes that develop the characters and reference historical events. (Some small children might be frightened by the image of the prophet’s body, covered by a sheet.)
From the point of view of Latter-day Saints teaching their young people, the film’s two or three brief references to plural marriage in the Smith house are helpful for the following reasons: 1) they introduce the issue in a non-sensational way, and 2) Emma’s wrestle with Joseph’s teaching of plural marriage is sympathetically portrayed, and framed in the broad context of being married to someone that everyone else loves and adores. Even more helpful is the way in which the character and narrative of Jane brings to the fore the problem of racism in our church history. It highlights the faith and fortitude of early black Latter-day Saints.
Although Jane and Emma has the potential to accomplish so much, its future currently hangs in the balance. As its opening weekend in Utah approaches, many of the people who would usually post glowing reviews and create buzz are taking a break from social media. Therefore it is critical for people who support the causes of women, racial minorities, and more nuanced church history to spread the word via “old school” networks like email, phone calls, and word of mouth. Those who want diverse perspectives to leaven Latter-day Saint culture should buy tickets in droves.
If the film is not successful in Utah in its opening weekend, this little handcart of a production will have to be abandoned when it is only just setting out on the journey the Latter-day Saints in the twenty-first century urgently require. Shoulders to the wheel!
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye is a member of the Sunnyvale Ward in Auckland, New Zealand.
Resources for teaching younger (Primary-age) Latter-day Saint children about the sin of racism, which also tell Jane’s story, can be found here: