Essential: EMMA SMITH, MY STORY (2008)
This month’s theme is ‘Significant Journeys,’ and it seems to me that Emma Smith had a journey that was quite unlike most of her contemporaries. As the wife of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, she encountered a great deal of hardship as they moved from New York to Illinois during the years of their marriage. She sort of lives in the shadow of her famous husband, but this film attempts to share her unique story.
I chose this film to review because it’s essential in several ways. First, it’s an essential look at how a religious group sees one of its leaders. It doesn’t matter if the viewer believes in the same things or not. Second, it’s an essential document of conservative feminism. And third, it’s essential as a historical biopic depicting life during a certain period of American history. I should also point out that this film is a companion piece to another project presented by the Mormon church, called JOSEPH SMITH: THE PROPHET OF THE RESTORATION. Both movies were directed by T.C. Christensen and Gary Cook. Cook was really the producer who took a co-directing credit; and Christensen who has worked as a cinematographer gives both films their distinctive, highly polished look. They’re visually stunning, given the rather modest budgets involved.
The actors are all professional, but vary in experience. Nobody gives less than a competent performance. I was astonished at how much the performers look like the actual people they play. They don’t seem to be using heavy make-up or other acting tricks. I think Christensen and Cook just happened to find the right people who could embody Joseph and Emma. There are two Emmas– one is younger and played in the flashbacks by Katherine Nelson; and the other one is older, reflecting over her life’s experiences, played by Patricia Place. Miss Place has over 100 credits on the IMDb, and she does an extraordinary job conveying the quiet strength of the older and wiser Emma Smith. I really felt connected to the character when watching her scenes.
The film that focuses on Joseph was produced first, to coincide with his 200th birthday in 2005. It was screened at Mormon visitors’ centers until 2015. Imagine a motion picture that remains in theaters for a decade. On that count alone, it must be highly influential. The second film, about Emma, uses leftover footage from the first film, plus new footage (probably the scenes with the older Emma) and it’s a half-hour longer. I feel it was probably put together so the women in the LDS faith had something they could look at in order to draw inspiration.
There is no way even the most casual viewer cannot be inspired by Emma’s story. The things she endured were beyond belief. She was disowned by her parents for marrying Joseph (they considered him a radical, and he certainly was); she lost her first few children at childbirth; she was kicked out of towns– make that states– because of the enemies her husband and his followers made; she served as counsel for the men in the church and wasn’t afraid to be called rebellious if she disagreed with their limiting patriarchal views; and of course, she was widowed with young children when Joseph was killed with his brother by an angry lynch mob.
There was also the polygamy issue, which this film does address. I won’t spoil the scenes, but I think the filmmakers handle it very responsibly and you feel a sense of pity that a man’s legal wife had to put up with such things because her husband insisted his god called him to have other wives. Emma was not a fool; and she certainly had to be a remarkable woman to tolerate the polygamy not only from within the community but from outside it, as her husband became persecuted for it. This motion picture could easily have gone much longer to cover all the ramifications of the other wives. But it’s not about them, and it doesn’t need to get hung up on polygamy. The main point is to present Emma’s journey– the years she had with Joseph, as well as the years without him.
One more thing impresses me about this production. You have to know a bit of Emma’s personal history to understand that she broke away from the church when her husband died. She and his successor, Brigham Young, were not in agreement on many things. In fact, she did not go west to Utah; Emma remained in Illinois for the rest of her life and she helped her son, Joseph, reorganize the church. That off-shoot is still in existence. All this notwithstanding, the filmmakers do not lessen the importance of Emma’s life or her role in their own modern faith, despite the fact she did not remain a “traditional” Mormon. The film is to be commended for showing us Emma not how Joseph or his church might wanted her to be, but how she actually was. Detractors might say the production is a form of LDS propaganda, but I see it as a tribute to a most remarkable woman of faith.
EMMA SMITH, MY STORY can be streamed on Amazon Prime.