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Jane and Emma opens in Utah theaters October 12. Get your tickets here

We piece together history like a patchwork quilt, taking what little swatches of color and detail we can from the records we have and stitching them together into something we can hope to understand as a whole. The problem comes when we think the quilt is finished, we’ve seen the entire picture.

Our quilt of the early history of the Gospel in this dispensation is far from complete and Jane and Emma, a new film from Excel Entertainment coming to theaters October 12, invites its audiences to explore a piece they might not have even known was missing from their quilted knowledge of our history.

Jane and Emma explores the close friendship between Emma Hale Smith, wife of the prophet Joseph, and Jane Manning, one of the early black converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The film is set on a night close on the heels of the martyrdom when Jane Manning is staying up with Emma, keeping their careful watch on the body of a prophet who, even in death, is not free of the danger of a mob.

Though this night is an imagined one, the friendship between Jane and Emma has been documented. One witness wrote in a diary that the goodbye between these two women when Jane left to travel with the saints to Salt Lake was very difficult. It was crumbs like that that screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson collected as she endeavored to turn the poignancy between these two women into a story that could be told on screen. She dove deeply into the writings of each woman to try to find the voice of each and the timbre that might have existed in their relationship.

“Jane and Emma are both women who I find so intriguing,” says Larson, “I admire them both so much and we just don’t talk about them enough in our discussion of history or faith even. They need to be more a part of the conversation.”

And who better to help include these women in the conversation than a predominantly female production team with director Chantelle Squires, writer Melissa Leilani Larson, and producers Zandra Vranes, Jen Lee Smith and Tamu Smith among others.

Arthur Van Wagenen from Excel Entertainment said he took the advice of President Gordon B. Hinckley with these women; he got out of their way and looked with wonder at what they could accomplish. “These women…are going to change the way storytelling in our culture happens,” said Van Wagenen.

It is our culture that this film invites its viewers to examine more closely. In Jane and Emma’s exploration of the friendship between these women, the film touches on some sensitive topics that members of the Church aren’t always comfortable discussing. Polygamy is certainly acknowledged, though far from central to the storyline, but the racial tension that surrounds the reality of a black woman in pre-Civil War America and even among the community of the saints, is tangible.

In one of the earliest scenes of the film, Jane Manning has a horse that Brother Joseph gave to her, taken away by a random, cruel, white stranger for essentially no reason at all except that she was vulnerable. “I’m doing you a favor” he spits back at her as he walks off with her beloved gift and only transportation. This provides stark contrast to the treatment she receives when, after an almost 800-mile walk to Nauvoo, Jane and her family arrive unannounced to the home of the prophet and are immediately welcomed in and asked to stay and be no more strangers, but fellow citizens.

But even as fellow citizen, Jane wasn’t always welcomed with open arms by everyone in Nauvoo and even in the present; the year of the 40th anniversary of the Priesthood Revelation, we have yet to achieve the perfect harmony and unity that Jane had hoped to encounter when she came to join the saints. But a film like this can remind us each to examine our hearts, our interactions, and our prejudices and be that much better toward one another for having seen Jane’s story.

“We as a culture are always talking about a quest for perfection,” says screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson, “In order to get to that place, in order to be perfect and to be like Christ, you need to be aware of what your own flaws are and work on improving them. Sometimes that’s each of us individually and sometimes that’s us as a community, as a collective, as a culture.”

And that is why it’s important to continue to tell our stories, and perhaps even more important to tell the stories we haven’t been telling; the missing parts of the quilt. Jane impressed me so much in this film; I hope to be more like her. She lived in a world that demanded she be vulnerable, sometimes even subservient, and instead she developed hard-won, unwavering faith and grit that continued through the end of her life (and, we can only assume, beyond).

Neither she nor Emma, nor even Joseph, is portrayed as a perfect person, but there is a beauty and accessibility in that complexity and imperfection. We see ourselves in the confusion and the grief and hopefully we can see ourselves in the perseverance and the hope as well.

In all the humanity, I would’ve liked a little more talk of eternity sitting at the body of a prophet, but there were moments of faith beautifully expressed amidst the difficulty and the grief that each woman felt and struggled to communicate. The film doesn’t claim to have the comprehensive truth of the relationship between these two women, but instead issues an invitation to a conversation about who they were and how the Gospel and their loyalty to one another affected the choices they made when the stakes were at their highest.

It also invites a conversation about the many stories of faithful women that are still left to be told and the many faithful women that should be telling them. I was on set for a day of shooting and sat with the director’s daughter and watched her watching her mother give direction and take charge and thought, what an exciting thing for a little girl to see. Her mother’s influence and input matters, Jane’s story and Emma’s story matter. To give the women, both behind the scenes and on the screen, their voices, is something significant. I hope it is just the start of many more untold stories of strong and complex women finally getting to be told.

The quilt of our history has much more depth and many details left to be added to it. There seem to be as many details of the past ready to be unearthed as there are miraculous stories currently unfolding. And each of these stories give us an opportunity to continue to study and understand how having the Gospel changes what it means to make our way through mortality. 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.

Jane and Emma opens in Utah theaters October 12. Get your tickets here