A conversation with Mauli Bonner, the filmmaker behind ‘His Name Is Green Flake’
This Is the Place Heritage Park will add statues of Black pioneers this week. Meet the man who made that happen
If you’re a Latter-day Saint, you likely know the music of the Bonner family, even if you don’t know each family member by name.
But Mauli Junior Bonner is fast becoming a standout among his talented siblings.
Bonner, the third oldest of eight children, grew up in Las Vegas. After high school, he moved to Los Angeles where he quickly learned that he had a gift for teaching singers. Soon he began writing songs and training pop artists like Katy Perry and Ariana Grande. He still lives in the L.A. area with his wife, Chantel, and their two children, Geo and Ari.
He and his wife run the nonprofit Lift Up Voices, which provides resources to marginalized communities and support and scholarships for at-risk teenagers.
But Bonner does more than help people and make music. He also directed and produced a movie called “His Name Is Green Flake,” which is about enslaved pioneer and Latter-day Saint Green Flake. Flake was a member of the first pioneer company to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, and entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 22, 1847.
The 2020 film has won multiple awards, including honors from the Los Angeles Film Awards, which named Yanosh Bonner (Mauli’s brother, who played Green Flake) best actor and Mauli Bonner best first-time director.
Flake is among the Black pioneers who will be honored Friday at This Is the Place Heritage Park. Bonner worked with the park director (whose ancestor was in the same handcart company as Flake) to create a monument for Flake and three other pioneers: Jane Manning James, Hark Wales and Walter Smith.
In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Bonner spoke about why he decided to make “His Name Is Green Flake” and the importance of Black history.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: How did you decide to get involved in telling the story of Black Latter-day Saints history?
Mauli Bonner: I was backstage at the Be One Celebration running sound check, and I’m watching the program while realizing that there are just some things that I didn’t know about. They talked about Jane Manning James, they talked about Elijah Abel, and these are people I have heard of, so I thought that they sounded familiar, but I didn’t know much about their stories. Then, Green Flake came up, and I had never heard of him.
After learning their stories, I knew I had to learn more. Honestly, I felt embarrassed; being a Black member in the church, I thought I should know this to be able to answer some of the tough questions. So I dove in and started learning. I met with historians. I’m a songwriter, so reading quickly turned into writing. I was writing scenes and songs, but I wasn’t trying to create anything. But about a month later, I had 200 pages and 10 songs. And then I realized that this was something special.
DN: All this writing turned into your movie “His Name Is Green Flake.” Why did Green Flake stand out to you?
MB: It wasn’t so much that he stood out to me, but I honestly felt like he was moving me toward him and his story.
My focus was on Elijah Abel because that’s where you can find the most information and he was a priesthood holder. With Green Flake, there’s just so little history available. His presence was so strong, so I wanted to follow that prompting, and I switched gears into telling his story. I realized halfway through that he drove that first wagon into Emigration Canyon and I learned that Brigham Young was a big reason that he didn’t endure enslavement like others did in Utah. All these nuances in his story made me realize why he had to be first.
DN: How did the whole process of creating this movie come together?
MB: I work in the music industry. I work with pop artists and prepare them for shows and tours. I work with people you hear on the radio like Ariana Grande, Camilla Cabello and Stevie Wonder. I’ve realized that the younger generation is more influenced by pop culture than their parents are. What we are finding online and what is happening in the world is affecting us drastically. I think the generations before us had a bubble that was just the church, but now our bubble is huge and we include movies, music, pop culture into our spiritual development.
I realized that the younger generation needed to hear the story in a way that they could relate to it and that they needed to hear it from someone who shares the same faith as Green Flake and the same background. I come from enslaved ancestry, and I think it matters that it is me telling it. You would think that it would have broken my testimony hearing these things, hearing that members were enslaving other members. You would think that that would have just broken me, but it just strengthened me.
Somehow I grew stronger to my God, stronger to Christ, stronger to the gospel, to know that there were men and women who looked like me who endured things that none of us could imagine and had a faith in something greater than the men and women who were treating them poorly. I thought if they could endure that, then I could endure any racism. If they could handle that, I can handle my little things.
DN: How can Latter-day Saints better support the work that needs to be done to learn and teach Black history?
MB: We have a personal responsibility to learn, each of us individually. Where I was three years ago is where most people are. They’ve heard some things, it sounds familiar, but then they fill in the blanks with their perceptions of the world. Instead, each of us has to take personal responsibility to learn the history that hasn’t been taught to us. That doesn’t just start with the church.
Especially since George Floyd’s murder, we have all dove into Black history more and learned things that weren’t taught to us in high school. We have a responsibility. We need to change the way that we are learning, and then it’ll change the work. Seeing movies, reading books and taking personal responsibility and accountability will automatically support the work.
DN: Where should a Latter-day Saint start to learn Black history?
MB: Start with the church’s website and by learning Black Latter-day Saint history. There are links to documents that can take you directly to the primary source scans. Start there and then let it go from there. I don’t want to learn about African American history from Germany; I want to learn it from African Americans. I say start there because that’s our history; then there’s going to be more you want. You’ll see a few names and then you’ll start to Google things and look up books. Darius Grey and Margaret Young’s trilogy “Standing on the Promises” is fantastic. If you’re looking to find out more about enslaved pioneers or Black pioneers who came across the plains to Utah, you can go to Century of Black Mormons. That website is phenomenal. Those biographies on their website are incredible. But I really do think you should start with the church.
DN: Part of your work on Black Latter-day Saint history has led to your efforts to build a monument to Black pioneers at This Is the Place Heritage Park. How did your work from the movie translate into the monuments?
MB: After I made the movie, I threw the film into film festivals. I didn’t really know what you were supposed to do, but I heard that’s what you’re supposed to do. This was my first time making a movie and my first time directing. And then it won best film in L.A., Rome, Istanbul and London. I was thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m going to be rich.” I wanted to take a picture with the cast and the crew by the monuments.
I live in L.A. and I assumed that somewhere there would have to be a Green Flake monument because he was so cool. To find out that there wasn’t a monument, that was when I realized that this movie wasn’t about making me rich, but that this whole project was to bring representation and awareness to Utah.
Utahns, the everyday person, they want it to be an inclusive place. They want to look around and see Black pioneers, Indigenous people, Tongans; we’re all here and we are growing. So we have to change what we see because there’s nowhere to see the stories of these incredible human beings who endured so much. I decided that every penny and profit was going to go toward building their monuments.
The director of the park, Ellis Ivory, has pushed so hard to make sure this happens. His ancestor was in the same party as Green Flake, so this is a special thing to do. This won’t be the only monument; it will be the first of many. The statues will be of Green Flake, Jane Manning James, Hark Wales and Oscar Smith. This monument is for all people because it represents our shared history.
DN: How has creating more representation for Black Latter-day Saints impacted you personally and your faith? What’s coming next?
MB: I think this is what people don’t realize. If you’re in a majority and all you see in leadership is people that look like you, you don’t question that you could be that one day or that your people were part of it. If you come from a group like me, an African American who doesn’t see leadership in certain positions or in paintings on the wall at church, then you have to try to convince your child that there are Black angels.
It’s not OK for a child to feel like that. We have to change that because we have children who are looking at that and they believe what they see first. They learned how to walk because they saw us walking and believed that they could do it, too. I’m so grateful for the change and the growth in all generations. This growth is so painful, but when we come out the other end of it, we come out more complete.
Now I do realize that there are more stories to tell. I get to come back to Elijah Abel now and tell his beautiful story. The gospel of the Lord, that Christ lived and died for, is that every man can have the priesthood, and we need to know that and tell that.
We look at the scriptures. We tell these tough stories, and we draw strength from it. Those who believe in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will do the same when they learn this history. It’s just going to strengthen us and give us more understanding.
There will be a screening of “His Name Is Green Flake” at the MegaPlex in Thanksgiving Point, Jordan Commons and The Junction on July 22. Click the link on your nearest location or here for more details.