Arts & Culture

LDS film ‘Jane and Emma’ embraces ‘difficult history’ of race

On Feb. 25, the Orem Public Library held a screening of the film Jane and Emma, a historical fiction account of one night in the life of Emma Smith, the wife of LDS prophet Joseph Smith, and Jane Manning James.

James was one of the first African-American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After her conversion and baptism in Connecticut, she and her family traveled to Nauvoo, Ill. There, James earned a living working as a domestic servant in Joseph and Emma Smith’s Mansion House, their personal home that also served as a hotel.

The film takes place over a single night in the immediate aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death. James returns to the house to see Emma Smith on a spiritual prompting.

Though the events of that night are imagined by screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson, it was important to her to be as faithful as possible to what is known about these women.

“I did a lot of research into both women,” Larson said. “I need to feel immersed in a character’s history so that when I’m creating a scene about them that may or may not have happened, it feels like it could have happened.”

The movie is similar in tone and style to other LDS history films, but provides many firsts in its content. There are few, if any, LDS films that feature a woman of color as the main character. This film also touches on subjects that are usually glossed over, such as race and polygamy. In one scene, Emma (played by Emily Goss) reveals that she sent Joseph’s four other wives away in the wake of his death, not wanting to be around them in her time of grief.

“The fact that we embrace some difficult history—race and gender and polygamy—is exciting because that just isn’t typical in LDS-themed cinema,” Larson said.

Jane and Emma, a new film about the relationship between Emma Smith, an early leader of the LDS church, and Jane Manning James, one of the church’s first black members, was recently screened at the Orem Public Library. The film addresses issues not often spoken of within LDS cinema, including racism and plural marriage. (Photo courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group)

Several scenes in the film center on James’ race, such as when other members assume her to be the Smiths’ slave. Larson acknowledged that these topics might make some viewers uncomfortable, but hopes that they might examine why.

“Our first reaction to racial tension is to say ‘oh, that’s not my problem,’ or ‘well, I’m not racist.’” Larson said. “We need to be willing to take a step back and examine ourselves and our interactions with others. People are complicated and history is equally complicated. I find it fascinating, and I can only hope that audiences feel the same.”

The film not only features women in front of the camera but behind it as well. In addition to Larson’s screenwriting, she also co-produced. The film was directed by Chantelle Squires and produced by Jenn Lee Smith, Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith.

Larson hopes that the film is able to shed a light on a person who is often forgotten in LDS church history.

“Jane was an incredible woman who led an astounding life. I admire her faith, tenacity, and patience,” said Larson. “More people need to know her story. She should be a household name in Latter-day Saint homes everywhere. The Church’s membership is international and diverse. We need to be telling stories that both represent and speak to that diversity.”

Showings of “Jane and Emma” can be requested on their website. More of Larson’s work can be seen this fall at UVU. Her stage adaptation of the novel “The Girl Who Drank the Moon” was commissioned by the UVU theater department and will have its world premiere in November 2019.

Photos courtesy of Excel Entertainment Group.

A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Robby Poffenberger as the author. The UVU Review apologizes for the error.

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