When director Chantelle Squires recently set out to make a film about women, by women and for women, the story of Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife, and Jane Manning James seemed the perfect fit.
“I think it’s really important for women’s stories to be told. There are not as many women’s stories out there as there should be, and especially being told from a women’s perspective,” Squires said. “Jane and Emma are some incredibly strong women. They have so much faith. They’re so powerful in their faith and in all of their choices that they make.”
“Jane and Emma,” set in the 1840s and opening in Utah theaters this week, centers on the unlikely friendship of Emma Smith and James, an African-American woman and early member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who, after walking about 800 miles from Buffalo, New York, to Nauvoo, Illinois, with her family, ended up at the Smiths’ doorstep and lived with them for a time.
“I’ve actually put at the end of the movie … a picture of Jane when she’s in the latter part of her life … and she’s in the middle of a sea of white Mormons,” Squires said. “It just really stood out to me, ‘Why is she there? Why is this woman there when not a lot of other African-Americans are still in the church at that time?’ And so the film really was kind of an answer to that, to understand who this woman is and what made her stay.”
The film is based on historical materials about Emma Smith and James, but set in a fictional story about a night they spend together watching over Joseph Smith’s body following his assassination.
“We have a lot of information that give us a significant amount of understanding about their character and their friendship and who they were as people, and we were able to take that and craft a narrative story together,” Squires said. “But it’s possible it could have happened. There’s no saying that it couldn’t have happened because it was a part of their life, so we just imagined what that would’ve been like and created a story from there.”
Emma Smith and James had a unique friendship, as Emma Smith was about 20 years older than James, Squires said. The Smiths even offered to adopt James, according to the director.
“Jane was not a threat to Emma. She was in a safe place because there wasn’t a chance of Jane being sealed to Joseph, and Emma had a struggle with that. It was a really hard time of her life toward the end of Joseph’s life with polygamy,” Squires said. “They had each other to trust. At the same time, they didn’t know how to do it.”
Squires described the film as depicting two women living under the same roof and going through “very real” personal trials who don’t realize they have each other to lean on until they stop and listen to each other.
“I think it’s a really beautiful look at friendship and what friendship can do to help us become better people,” Squires said.
Telling this story from James’ perspective gives viewers new access to Joseph and Emma Smith, according to Squires.
“This is her life, her experience, her love for both of them, her relationship to both of them, and she’s so real, and so accessing both Joseph and Emma through Jane has given them a new life that was never seen before,” Squires said. “We really tried hard to bring everyone to a relatable place and make them human, and Jane does that. We’re able to do that through her eyes.”
Squires said the filmmakers did not avoid discussing issues of race in “Jane and Emma.”
“Issues of race were problematic back in 1844 and they’re problematic today,” Squires said. “It’s hard to see how things really haven’t changed as much as we think that they have, and it was really important for us to be able to tackle the issues of race and to be able to open up a dialogue and a conversation because I think that that dialogue has been avoided and also just not recognized.”
In fact, these issues were “the reason to make the movie,” according to Squires.
“That was a huge motivating factor to making this film is that through this story, we were going to be able to talk about these issues and perhaps give someone who’s never thought about it before the opportunity to think about it and the opportunity to act and do something to help bring us together as one,” Squires said.
The director said she hopes the truths in “Jane and Emma” resonate with viewers and that the film brings about healing.
“I really hope that people will start to see people around them, to see the people who need to be included and loved, loved for exactly who they are, because I think that’s something that we can all work on is loving our brothers and sisters for exactly who they are and learning how to love someone even though they’re different from us,” Squires said.