In ‘Jane and Emma’, A History Worth Revisiting

The new Jane and Emma movie showcases the strength of a sisterhood between two early saints amid racial and gender battles still being waged today.


If your curiosity is piqued by what you’ve seen and heard about the film, Jane and Emma, then this is the weekend to see it. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation and the Bonneville Charitable Foundation has announced that it will match box office sales Friday only with a donation to the NAACP, up to $40,000. You can get your tickets at, as well.

Now To The Film

This historically accurate yet fictional story involving a tense night between two women and the dead body of Joseph Smith finds its rhythm switching between emotional dialogue from within the walls of the Smith home in the wake of the prophet’s recent death, and scenes of contextual flashbacks that tell the broader story of Jane Manning James, one of the first black members of the Church, her relationship with Joseph and Emma, as well as with the saints in the early days of the Church.

After seeing the feature, I reached out to Melissa Leilani Larson, the film’s screenwriter to ask her a couple of questions, particularly with regard to her approach to the project and choosing what to frame in the context of the plot. She said, “I always try to frame my work with the idea that the story was happening before the film began, and continued on after the film ended,” adding that “Jane and Emma’s lives both went on after June 28, but we don’t necessarily have time to dramatize that.”

It’s that night, June 28, that the film homes in on, and where the hypothetical tale of what might have happened behind closed doors through those long hours is where the film finds its vehicle to essentially explore the true-to-life sisterhood and friendship between the two women.

Not A Typical Sleeper Of Indie Film

Being that a single night in a quiet house is the plot convention, there’s inherently a looming staleness to try and avoid. In the same way that LDS indie film Freetown zoomed in on a compelling, single narrative point but ultimately became trapped by a one-note plot device, Jane and Emma is susceptible to this as well and can feel slow in parts as well. After all, two characters pulling an all-nighter inside the walls of a few rooms necessitates either a lot of dialogue or a lot of silence.

Thankfully, the reliance on Larson’s script of convincing dialogue and the adept use of silence, interspersed with essential flashbacks that come not a moment too soon, break the encroaching monotony and allow this film’s would-be trappings to transcend their limitations.

All the while, Larson’s dialogue itself is both restrained and measured, full of authentic interaction—itself a writer’s feat—and occasionally dazzles with attitude, verve, and wit. Romantic lines steeped in religious and cultural mores present themselves with gems like “Hey girl, I’m not here to get your tithing” as one character’s flirty protest to being called “brother.”

Another scene where an early saint scoffs at the notion of a black woman’s membership scoffs, “Surely you can’t have been baptized, you are a child of Cain,” to which Jane’s unshaken response becomes the undeniable anthem of the film, “I am a child of God.” 

At The Heart Of The Story

And that’s really at the core of this film. This is a creative work that tells an unfamiliar story of two women that are crucially important to church history but nonetheless have been women who, over the years and evolutions of an evolving faith culture, have been all but forgotten or worse, vilified as in Emma’s case. 

Indeed, this is a unique display from the cannon of Latter-day Saint film. The natural writing style and competent acting prowess from the two leads lend way sensitive, insightful and nuanced framing by director Chantelle Squires, who said at a screening that this work was one where they intentionally sought to raise their collective voices against racial injustice and inequality. This is not a film that is an apology, or a whitewashing of history. It’s a meditation on what racial and gender inequality looked like in the early days of the Church, and it’s a mirror to contemplate how far we have or have not come in that regard today. It’s not overhanded in its activism by any stretch, however.

And speaking of Jane and Emma, we must not look past those who gave life to the title characters. Danielle Deadwyler’s indefatigable portrayal of Jane Manning James and Emily Goss’s trembling stubbornness of Emma Smith are performances worthy of all the adulation they are receiving. These were emotional roles, and maintaining that moist-eyed, verge-of-crying tension in take after take for the whole movie is as exhausting to consider as it is impressive to watch.

The Sound And The Fury

There is another “character” of sorts to discuss. In the same way other stylized films have a soundtracks that feature so prominently it almost feels like another character in the story, the soul-stirring anthems sung by the Bonner family are more than a backdrop for setting the mood, they are auditory evidence of what Jane Manning James’s legacy sounds like today: strong, stirring chords and progressions that strike a balanced tone between period music of black America in the 1800s and contemporary riffs that will have you humming the anthems for weeks.

Moreover, the score, composed by Mauli Bonner and Jonathan Keith, aids the viewer in feeling the heart of this film in a soundtrack that carries this film into the achingly relevant world of 2018.

The Difficulty Of Self-Reflection In Art

It doesn’t stop there. Jane and Emma boldly dive into a crucial commentary on well-intentioned but insensitive white benevolence and privilege. As viewers learn what happened to Jane Manning James, especially as the title cards at the end sum up the postscript, it’s hard to sit through the credits thinking anything else but that this story, like so many others, ends with racism winning. 

“Well, it’s a tricky thing,” Melissa Leilani Larson explained. “What we are trying to do with this film is demonstrate a well-rounded friendship between Jane and Emma. We wanted to show ups and downs, but ultimately wanted to end on a positive note.” 

When I cast doubt on whether they succeeded in doing that, she replied that it was a difficult task. “Jane’s story is tinged with tragedy. We felt it was important to include the history in the title cards so that audiences don’t walk away with just a sense of “happily ever after.”

As mentioned, while the film itself is a work of fiction, that’s not a complete description. Relying on real events, real people and a real historical context, it’s the fictionalized narrative and dialogue that become the purpose-driven vehicle, perhaps not for documenting little-known church history and figures, but for revealing truths about a period of time, which are still uncomfortable to wrestle with today.

As True As Fiction

And for offering insights on true friendship and sister-like love two women share; women who were in a sense completely out of their time, yet tragically trapped by it, and forged from it. A quote comes to mind by author Sherman Alexie, “if you’re going to write fiction, it better be true.” That being the case, submit Jane and Emma as a textbook example of that.

But in looking at Sister James’s history, there are still some bones to pick. Again, from Melissa Leilani Larson:

“There is also a lot of misunderstanding floating around Jane’s requests to be sealed to Joseph and Emma, and her eventual attachment to them as a servant. Because Jane says in her autobiography that Emma made the offer of adoption, it makes sense to me character-wise that there was a close connection that spurred that offer. The film is an attempt to explore that possibility.”

Never A Slave In Life…But In Death?

So what did happen? Jane was “attached” as a servant to Emma and Joseph in what was, as Larson notes “a special, one-time ceremony meant to appease Jane. It didn’t.” She continued, “It’s so interesting that people think Joseph wanted Jane sealed to him as an eternal slave.” 

Interesting, indeed. And perhaps the best takeaway, the more hopeful one, then, is for audience members to realize not only that Joseph didn’t, but that we see and trust that Jane wouldn’t have wanted that either. That this film has Jane front and center, is hopeful evidence of that trust.

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