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New Latter-day Saint film 'Jane and Emma' challenged filmmakers but offers powerful message of true friendship

SALT LAKE CITY — Tamu Smith recalls one rainy day when she and a few others producing the new film, "Jane and Emma," took a break and drove to the Salt Lake Cemetery to visit the grave of Jane Manning James.

"We were going through a hard time on set. There were tears. It was a mess," Smith said. "We spent time together. We certainly felt the spirit of Jane that day."

For Smith and several other women collaborating behind the scenes on a film over a two-year period, the project was challenging and at times intense. The fictional story with an independent budget is based on real lives and touches on racial tension and polygamy in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Along the way, these female filmmakers, producers and writers found inspiration and strength in learning about the film's main characters: James, one of the most documented early black converts who lived with the Latter-day Saint prophet Joseph Smith's family; and Emma Smith, Joseph's wife, the first Relief Society President. The two women with vastly different backgrounds became dear friends.

"Jane and Emma" opens in theaters Oct. 12.

Working on the film, which features the two women's relationship and the night after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, was a life-changing experience for director Chantelle Squires.

"From a standpoint of trying to figure out how to tell the story and understand it," Squires said. "There's a lot of important truths in this film. In order for me to get to an honest and open place about how to tell the story, I had to do a lot of hard work. I changed as a person through that process."

Director Chantelle Squires with crew on the set of "Jane and Emma."
Director Chantelle Squires with crew on the set of "Jane and Emma."
Excel Entertainment

Executive producers Madeline Jorgensen and Jenn Lee Smith, along with producers Zandra Vranes and Smith and screenwriter Melissa Leilani Larson, were instrumental in that process.

Larson and others collaborated on the script for two years and revised as many as 20 drafts, she said.

"One of the saddest things about some independent films is that they don't take time with the script. They don't take the time to make sure the story is in a good place. Actors are awesome, but they can only do so well with what you give them. A lot of the writing process is re-writing," said Larson, who has a background in theater and writing plays. "I think the final product is pretty great. It's been worth it. They say that it has to be hard for it to be good."

During the process, these women, some of whom are mothers, often spoke by phone and made business decisions after their children went to bed and while juggling various responsibilities, including day jobs. It's never been easy for women in filmmaking, Jorgensen said.

"As a woman in the film world, you have to go above and beyond. You have to earn respect every time," Jorgensen said. "But just being around women that understood and telling a story about women has been so creatively, emotionally and intellectually fulfilling for me. We created something that celebrates diversity and celebrates learning to love those differences."

Amid the circumstances of life, differing opinions and personalities, some of the women found confidence and hope in James' never-quit, always-faithful example. More people need to know her story, they agreed.

"There have been many times in the last two years when I said, 'If Jane can do it, I can do it,'" Squires said. "To me she's the strongest woman of faith. I think we can all learn a lot from her."

Director Chantelle Squires with actress Danielle Deadwyler and actor Daner Gerald on the set of "Jane and Emma."
Director Chantelle Squires with actress Danielle Deadwyler and actor Daner Gerald on the set of "Jane and Emma."
Excel Entertainment

Tamu Smith, a Latter-day Saint convert, first learned about James as a student at Ricks College at a time when she felt so alone she wondered if she was the only black member of the church. She was fascinated to find out there were African-American pioneers long before the 1978 revelation on the priesthood. Over the last 10-15 years, she has often played James in the stage play, "I Am Jane."

"What kept me going through the rough patches? The spirit of Jane kept me going," said Tamu Smith, who partners with Vranes to make up the Sistas in Zion. "I immediately identified with her. She is kinship to me."

All the women acknowledged gaining a greater appreciation for Emma Smith. But before working on this project, Jorgensen knew very little about James.

"She is one of the most tenacious, kind and interesting individuals I have ever studied in history," Jorgensen said.

As an Asian-American growing up in Utah, Jenn Lee Smith wished she would have known more about James and other black pioneers.

"I think it would have helped me a lot growing up," Jenn Lee Smith said.

The film says a lot about women standing together in hard times, balancing faith with an honest, gritty portrayal of Latter-day Saint life in the 1840s, Jenn Lee Smith said.

"The whole time we were filming, we're wondering will people feel uncomfortable?" Smith said. "I think audiences have a newfound respect for covering reality. ... In the last eight years or so, the church has become more comfortable with its own history, which is important. Any organization is going to have its ups and downs, just as any individual will. I think that helps us feel closer to one another, knowing that none of us are perfect."

Contrary to what some men might think, the film is not a chick flick. Rather it's the kind of movie that will keep you pondering for several days, Tamu Smith said.

One key scene in the film is when James' family arrives at the Smith's Nauvoo Mansion House after walking about 800 miles from Connecticut. They knock on the door and Emma Smith invites them in.

Consider the gravity of that act, Tamu Smith said.

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

"It's 1843. Jane was born free but didn't have any free papers. In Illinois, she could be arrested and forced into slavery. It was your word against a white person's word. In a white world, black people are never invited in to sit and discuss how your day is going because they didn't care. You were there to serve them. Yet Emma invites them in, they probably look and smell like a hot mess, but they make room for them to sit, give them food and ask them to talk about their journey. Joseph tells them they are among friends and they will be protected," Tamu Smith said.

"We act like it was a casual thing, but that just didn't happen. That had never happened to them before, I guarantee it."

The scene demonstrates true friendship and humanity between James and Emma Smith, along with a message of greater interracial friendship and tolerance for society today, the women agreed.

Vranes believes "Jane and Emma" will serve to get people thinking and talking.

"I don’t think we’re setting out to solve anybody’s issues. What we’re doing is opening a conversation," Vranes said. "We’re saying let’s have this conversation and let’s use the gospel as our guide. Hopefully people accept that invitation. Hopefully the movie will be a part of starting that much-needed conversation."