“Under the Banner of Heaven,” a Hulu series based on a real-life double murder in Utah, has been in the news since its debut last week. But members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are unimpressed. Rather than “fostering a better understanding of my religious tradition,” an LDS reporter recently lamented, the production is “yet another milestone in a decades-long trail of angst.”
At first, the show takes a dark view of faith. And it portrays Mormons as bizarre, one-dimensional puppets — conversing in a dialogue as alien to members of the faith as it is to outsiders. Ominous tones overshadow even something as innocent as a father presenting his young daughter with a Choose the Right ring, the Mormon equivalent of a What Would Jesus Do? bracelet.
An LDS historian who was invited to the first Noted afterwards that “none of the Mormon scholars I sat with – all of whom know very well how to apply an open and critical look to our own culture and tradition – recognized themselves or their people in the ‘episode”. I have yet to meet another LDS church member, or even a friend, who sees the show’s portrayal of us as believable. The show seemingly delves into all the misguided stereotypes and tropes the filmmakers might find.
How is Hollywood and the culture in general so often and easily mistaken? Just listen to series creator Dustin Lance Black. Asked about the reviews, he accused his detractors of either not watching the show or simply advocating for murderous extremists.
He later expanded on this uncharitable reading in several interviews, describing Mormons as “blaming himself” for his portrayal of the faith. He also said the church “encourages members not to dig” into its own history and suggested Mormon women “can’t ask church leaders.” Both are categorically false, and the latter is particularly odd given that many church leaders are women.
It is a manifestation of the common but misguided idea that the LDS community should simply turn the other cheek whenever our beliefs are slandered or twisted. And it’s not a new idea for Mr. Black, who worked on the HBO show “Big Love” when it portrayed an LDS sacred ceremony against the expressed wishes of the church. Although the network later apologized, Mr. Black repeats a similar offense in his new series.
Mr. Black’s disdain for this particular faith runs deep. Since spending some of his early years as a member of the Mormon Church, the filmmaker rarely misses an opportunity to dig against Mormons, whether in an interview or in his 2009 Oscar acceptance speech. It’s ironic considering how fervently he defends the LGBT community from stereotypical portrayals.
Still, Mr Black says he considers himself an ally of the LDS faith and claims he created the new show, based on journalist Jon Krakauer’s 2003 non-fiction book of the same name, without personal bias. . He adds that he distinguished between traditional and fundamentalist followers of the faith, but “many things they share in common are misogynistic, dangerous and potentially deadly.”
Imagine the uproar if a great filmmaker warned that al-Qaeda and mainstream Muslims were distinct but both murderous and misogynistic. Of course, that would never happen, and therein lies the problem. Mr. Black can lump 16 million Mormon believers into the same “dangerous” category as two murderous extremists from the 1980s only because many in media and entertainment view Mormons as “fair game.”
Am I hypersensitive? Perhaps. But I have personally felt the damage caused by these representations. As a “public Mormon” I notice an increase in sarcastic remarks and personal attacks every time something like “Under the Banner of Heaven” comes out, Mitt Romney is trending on Twitter,
or the musical “The Book of Mormon” is coming to town. I’m not surprised when people tell me that as a “normal” person, I’m not what they expected given my religious beliefs. The LDS story shows how quickly this insensitive rhetoric can escalate.
Many Latter-day Saints spent much of the first three decades of the Church’s existence being driven from their homes and exiled from state to state. In 1838, the governor of Missouri signed an executive order stating that “Mormons shall be treated as enemies and shall be exterminated or driven from the state.” In 1844, a hostile newspaper editor derided Mormonism with such fervor that he and others stirred up a mob to assassinate Joseph Smith, the faith’s founder, and his brother Hyrum. Other church members, including innocent women and children, often met the same fate.
Latter-day Saints do not deserve to be called “dangerous” by Mr. Black or anyone else. “Dangerous” paints millions of people in broad strokes or allows bigotry to fester through art. “Dangerous” stands idly by, saying nothing.
Mr. Austin is a Utah-based journalist.
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