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Movie review: After 'Jane and Emma,' viewers may be left wanting more of Jane's story. That's a good problem

“JANE AND EMMA” — 3 stars — Danielle Deadwyler, Emily Goss, Brad Schmidt; PG (some thematic material); in general release

“You is the prophet Joseph Smith. I knew it when I saw you.”

Those are the faithful words Jane Elizabeth Manning (Danielle Deadwyler) utters to the first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when she meets him for the first time after leading her family from Connecticut to Nauvoo, Illinois. The journey was far from easy — her family walked 800 miles when they were prohibited from boarding a boat in Buffalo, New York.

But despite the difficult setback, Jane, one of the first African-Americans to join the church, is beaming when she meets the man she calls prophet (Brad Schmidt).

“We couldn’t stay away,” she says.

While viewers may want more of that harrowing journey to Nauvoo — and more about Jane’s family and her personal conversion, for that matter — the film “Jane and Emma” successfully provides a large window into Jane’s inspirational character.

Wanting more of Jane's story is a good problem to have. But director Chantelle Squires' film isn't a biopic; instead she focuses on Jane's unwavering faith, portraying it through her reaction to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom on June 27, 1844. The start of the film notes this imagining is inspired by a limited record of Manning.

As the film opens, we see Jane, a free black woman, compelled to travel from her home in Iowa to Nauvoo to help Emma Smith (Emily Goss) during this dark time. Jane arrives and finds a grieving widow protecting her husband’s body — and unwilling to hand that body over to the public. But, as Jane reminds her, “He ain’t just your husband. He’s the Lord’s prophet.”

When Emma asks Jane why she has returned to Nauvoo, Jane responds after a long pause: “I’m still figuring that out.”

Actresses Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Jane Manning James, and Emily Goss, who plays Emma Smith, in "Jane and Emma."
Actresses Danielle Deadwyler, who plays Jane Manning James, and Emily Goss, who plays Emma Smith, in "Jane and Emma."
Excel Entertainment

Flashbacks begin to answer that question and explain why she left, taking viewers back nine months and showing Joseph and Emma as they welcome Jane and her family to Nauvoo and into their home with open arms — even when other members of the church do not. At one point, Jane meets criticism from a fellow member of the church when she tells him she has been baptized.

“But you’re a child of Cain,” he says.

“I’m a child of God,” she responds. “Just like you.”

The film doesn’t shy away from tough subjects in church history, using Jane’s character as a vehicle to show the sting of racism — Joseph tells a member of the church that “to curse the negro is to tempt damnation” — and even briefly addressing polygamy.

But despite Joseph and Emma’s kindness toward Jane, many of the other members in Nauvoo fail to show her that same respect, leading her to eventually make a new home in Iowa. “The Saints ain’t as different from the rest of the world as they think they is,” Jane tells Emma.

But Jane never lets these racial or socioeconomic factors stand in the way of her relationship with God. While Goss and Schmidt are compelling in their roles as Emma and Joseph, Deadwyler’s standout performance as Jane is the film’s greatest strength — a close second is the music, which provides a moving narrative of its own with soulful renditions of hymns like “Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah” and “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.”

Deadwyler portrays Jane with a powerful combination of steadfastness and vulnerability — she immediately travels to Nauvoo when she feels the Lord is prompting her, but we also see her crying out in prayer for an explanation.

Although much of the narrative, written by Melissa Leilani Larson, focuses on Emma’s grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death, the intimate setting — two close, unlikely friends keeping each other company during a sorrowful time — also allows viewers to learn more about a lesser-known character in church history. The film is rooted in limited historical record, but it does something remarkable with that limitation: It shows us why Jane's story is one worth telling.

“Jane and Emma” is rated PG for some thematic material; running time: 90 minutes.