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Could "Jane and Emma" Have a Cultural Impact Like "Black Panther" and "Crazy Rich Asians"?

For the first time in Latter-day Saint cinema, Jane and Emma, a film produced, written, directed, and edited by women, presents an African-American woman as a protagonist and sheds light on the personal faith journey of that woman: Jane Manning James. 

The film opened on 21 screens across Utah last Friday and is quickly garnering attention for its willingness to dive headlong into thorny issues of Latter-day Saint history while balancing a faith-positive approach to the main narrative. 

Evidence of the film’s ability to strike the balance between complex issues and faith is evidenced by the way the film has been embraced by opposite ends of the Latter-day Saint cultural spectrum. After Jane and Emma premiered in Salt Lake City last week, both Lindsay Hansen Park, acting director of Sunstone, and Mariah Proctor, of Meridian Magazine, were effusive in their praise of the film.

From Ms. Park’s Facebook Page: “. . . beautifully written. The script is stunning and poignant . . . this film honors [Jane Manning James and Emma Hale Smith Bidemon]. Full stop . . . [The film] is not faith promoting per se, but it is faith honoring.”

And from Ms. Proctor’s review: “. . . there were moments of faith beautifully expressed amidst the difficulty and the grief that each woman felt and struggled to communicate. . . . Jane and Emma brought me a new Gospel hero and I suspect there are many more Gospel heroes waiting to inspire us if we would but take the time to tell their stories.”

Conversations are happening around this film and this moment of the 40th anniversary of the revelation lifting restrictions on black Latter-day Saints and the #MeToo movement working to empower women. One woman in New Zealand was so desperate to support the film that she started a grassroots crowdfunding campaign to purchase blocks of tickets in Utah, even though she lives half way around the world and would never make it to a theater opening weekend.

It is still too early to tell whether Jane and Emma can capture the widespread imagination of a substantial enough number of Latter-day Saints  to turn into a cinematic cultural moment like this years’ prior break-out hits, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians; but the early signs are that Jane and Emma is hitting a nerve amongst Latter-day Saints and giving them a film they can be proud of—for both its artistic merit and boldness.  Audience reactions repeatedly convey a sense of relief, if not joy or elation, that there is finally a film willing to lift up the underrepresented voices of our faith and to acknowledge the oft forgotten members of the full body of Christ. As professor Paul Reeve, author of Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, declares, if we leave out the stories of minorities or marginalized groups, specifically black members’ stories, from the larger fabric of the Church of Jesus Christ, the body of Christ is incomplete.

Here are some other reactions to the film: ·

"I have never heard of Jane Manning, but this movie has made me love who she was. Her testimony and spirit are so encouraging. She is such a strong woman, a great friend to Emma, and a beautiful LDS woman who’s story deserves to be known throughout the world." —Madi Stephan

"Well scripted, well acted, well filmed. It was a beautiful and powerful experience. No sugar coating; just honest, vital storytelling." —Karl Hale

"Raw emotion, a compelling story, and two unconventional, inspirational heroines make Jane and Emma one of the best movies I have seen depicting racial tension and the kind of love that transcends cultural divide. An Intimate portrait of two women whose respect, empathy, strength and passion create an unexpected, yet powerful friendship, this film will spark both introspection and discussion. It’s the kind of story you won’t forget." —Emily Freeman

"Strong female protagonists, realistic and complex relationships, and an honest portrayal of racial issues. I'm looking forward to seeing it again!" —Charlotte Shurtz

"Beautiful work on this story about and by women. So important to support this - this work and this conversation. This needs to be just the beginning of many more opportunities and stories where women are seen and heard and known and remembered." —Emily Hess-Flinders

To be a part of the conversation and movement that inspires this kind of activism and passion, find a theater near you: www.janeandemma.com/whereplaying

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