Late in the trailer for the new film Jane and Emma, we see Emma Smith whirl around and brandish a pistol as if about to shoot a home invader. Earlier, she had vowed no one would drag her prophet and husband Joseph from their home again. But as she points the pistol, we can see Joseph’s figure beside her, lying under a linen sheet. He is already dead. Such is the traumatic context for this new film.

Inspired by real events, Jane and Emma depicts the bond which formed between Emma Smith and Jane Manning James, an early black convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jane walked 800 miles to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith and join his faith. Once in Nauvoo, Jane becomes friends with Joseph’s first wife, Emma. Jane and Emma’s unlikely friendship serves as the film’s spine. If you haven’t yet watched the intense trailer, here’s your chance:

Jane and Emma opens in a score of Utah cinemas tomorrow, Friday October 12th. Audiences will see an original story, based partly in history and partly in imagination. The principle action involves Jane and Emma sitting watch over Joseph Smith’s body following his assassination. Throughout the night, the two grapple with all that his life and death means to them. It is the story of a deep sisterly bond which formed in the turbulent 1840s in Nauvoo.

As director Chantelle Squires states on the film’s official website:

“Jane and Emma deal with a number of issues, including marital struggles, being a single mom, racial persecution, violence against women, social injustice and even questions of faith and religion.”

Audiences will experience a story which veers in and out of memory while aching about the future. According to the screenwriter, Melissa Leilani Larson, the plot’s intentionally patchy texture grew out of Jane’s real-life autobiography. Jane dictated this work in her 80s. Larson describes the material as a series of moments or bits. “I had to create a narrative to tie those bits and crumbs together.”

Of course, the film also draws on the contemporary perspectives and experiences of the filmmakers, both Mormon and non-Mormon, both white people and persons of color. The movie is primed to spark conversations.

Jane and Emma converse while sitting watch over the body of the slain Prophet Joseph Smith. Image courtesy Excel Entertainment.

Indeed, Jane and Emma is already sparking conversations and creating buzz. The film’s website includes a host of short interview clips with the lead actors, director, writer, and producers. It also includes a link to Jane’s biography in The University of Utah’s Century of Black Mormons database.

Peggy Fletcher Stack, of the Salt Lake Tribune, interviewed Danielle, the actor who portrays Jane. Danielle is not a member of the Church, so the interview provides the chance not only to discuss acting process, but also Danielle’s impressions of Mormon culture from the outside looking in.

The Deseret News published a feature article including quotes from several of the filmmakers. Their coverage also includes a follow-up piece detailing how the filmmakers hurriedly adjusted their publicity strategy following President Russell M. Nelson’s call for women of the restored Church to do a social media fast (which regrettably overlaps with the film’s opening weekend). For its part, LDS Charities has pledged up to $40,000 in donations to the NAACP by matching opening day ticket sales.

The Jane and Emma website lists theaters showing the movie. And for all us folks living outside Utah, there is a link to request the film be shown locally.

Questions for Discussion

Are you planning to see Jane and Emma? Why or why not?

Were you aware of the real-life Jane Manning James? If so, what are your impressions of her?

What events or historical figures would you like to see Mormon filmmakers dramatize in the future?