There is a scene in the new movie Jane and Emma where Emma, the wife of Joseph Smith, realizes, or learns, that her “friend” Jane, a free black woman, had moved away from the newly built city of Nauvoo Illinois, to escape racists. This scene isn’t simply meaningful in that it acknowledges racism in 1840’s America, but because of the way it acknowledges the racism that existed in that New Jerusalem destination of religious converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Jane, propelled by her religious convictions had walked 800 miles to get to Nauvoo only to find that Zion was, for the most part, still America.
But that was just one little scene in a movie that is about so much more. The plot of Jane and Emma takes place over the span of one fictionalized night in Emma’s home. Joseph, having just been publicly murdered by a mob is laid out under a sheet on a table and an understandably emotional Emma is trying to come to grips with her personal loss. Jane, unaware of Joseph’s death shows up on the doorstep having been drawn there by some lingering impression and compulsion she cannot explain. The two women spend the night watching out in fear that enemies will come in the night and steal the prophet’s body, and sub sequentially work through their relationship. I’m not sure how you make a movie that only covers one night in which (spoiler alert) nothing actually happens- yet they pulled it off.
Well, really, Danielle Deadwyler and Emily Gross, who play Jane and Emma, pull it off. Deadwyler took a character most people have never heard of and nailed it so hard that I left the theater telling my daughters, “Her! You be her! That is what we are all trying to grow up to be.” Gross took on the role of Emma, who has a problematic reputation within Mormonism, and left the viewer with a new level of understanding and compassion for this complex woman. That alone was worth admission.
But the greatest triumph of this movie was that the writers and producers created a product set in an 1840’s America city and church and let two women remain the driving forces and central characters. They were not secondary, they were not existing to support a man, they were themselves and the story stayed theirs the entire time. Joseph existed, Jane had a love interest, but they weren’t the point.
Mostly, Jane is the point.
Jane was a real person. She, like so many people around her, lived a hard life. What made Jane so remarkable was that despite the hardships, and so many of those hardships were manufactured and put upon her by those who shared her faith, was that she simply could not be crushed. She never stopped pushing forward for what she knew was true or right. She stuck with her faith even when it looked like they were all in the wrong. She stuck with the faith when the faith effectively rejected her. She was not there for them she was there for truth. And in the end, time has proven that she was in fact, right.