The new movie “His Name is Green Flake” is inspired by the true story of an enslaved pioneer who helped pave the way across the plains for Saints to settle in Utah.
Mauli Junior Bonner, the creator and director of the film is hoping it helps viewers appreciate the strength and faith of the early Black Saints.
Bonner had never heard of Green Flake until he performed at the “Be One” celebration with his family, The Bonner Family. The Be One celebration was put on by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the priesthood ban on Black members being lifted.
At the event there was a presentation about early Black pioneers including Jane Manning James, Elijah Abel, Green Flake and more. Bonner said he left the celebration wanting to learn more about all these early Saints he had never heard of before.
Bonner dove into research on early Black Saints, meeting with historians, looking through journals, and learning as much as he could about the enslaved members, the first Blacks to get the priesthood, and others. As a songwriter, Bonner’s research quickly turned into writing songs to help him release his creative thoughts and deal with the emotional toll many of the stories had on him.
Somewhere along this writing and reading process, Bonner ended up writing 200 pages of information on Green Flake and some other Saints that could be turned into a movie.
“I had no intent initially, but over time the songs and reading turned into writing scenes. I had never written a script or thought of making a movie and being a director. It just happened during this process,” Bonner said.
Importance of sharing Black Saint stories
Looking at this script he had written, Bonner said he knew he had to make the film to help others learn what he did about the sensitive topic of enslavement in American and Latter-day Saint history. “Learning about their stories strengthened my testimony. I realized I needed to share these stories in the same spirit that I learned them,” he said.
Dana King is a BYU alumna and white member of Church who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She said learning about the stories of early Black Saints and today’s Black Saints has helped her testimony immensely.
“Too often I hear Black history is only for Black people and I think we really miss out on the blessing it can be to us,” King said. She said learning about “Black struggle” can teach how to stand up to evil and find joy in trials. She also said the resilience of the Black Saints can teach members today to be more resilient and give people stories to draw strength from.
King has served in the Church Public Affairs, and has worked with the local Urban League, The Dred Scott Foundation and more to be an advocate for unity in the St. Louis community. She is a former board member of Blacklatterdaysaints.org, a website that celebrates Black Saints’ contributions to the Church and also helped organize Discover Your Roots, an African American family history conference. Her focus in all of this she said, is to be a bridge-builder between the white and Black communities, especially in the Church and in Missouri.
She said she appreciates storytellers like Bonner who are bringing stories like Green Flake’s out of obscurity. Black history, is “the story of all of us,” King said. “It’s everyone’s history and leaving any part out is like leaving people out of the Restoration.”
Although creating a movie is usually a two-year process, Bonner was able to finish the script, gather a cast and crew, and start shooting “His Name is Green Flake” only a few months after learning about him. They shot almost the entire film in just a week and a half in snowy Utah in December 2018. They completed the last few scenes, which required a different season, in May 2019.
Bonner then took a year off from the movie to spend time with his family and get back to his normal job. When the pandemic hit in 2020, he had enough extra time and could edit the movie together, add music and finalize the details.
Impact of the film
“The film turned out to be beautiful and I don’t say that because I’m the director. I feel like I had nothing to do with it!” Bonner said. “The Lord guided everyone’s hands and lips and their scenes, and it was incredible.”
The movie was officially released on June 8, 2021, the 43rd anniversary of the Priesthood ban for Black members being lifted.
“His name is Green Flake” won “Best Film” in 10 film festivals including the London Independent Film Awards, the Los Angeles Film Awards, Venice Film Awards and more. The movie also received over 40 other awards for writing, costuming, score and acting, Bonner said.
Bonner said the film has been received well by both those in and outside the Church. He thinks it’s “an incredible healing agent” that opens education and discussions on the contributions and history of Black Saints and pioneers in the Church.
“By raising awareness of Green Flake and other important contributors to this sacred history, we can come together to celebrate those forgotten heroes,” the Green Flake website states.
BYU alumni and member of the Church Lauren Halversen said the movie instilled in her a reverence for the faith and sacrifice the Black Saints had while enduring racial injustices.
“The film does a fantastic job of not only establishing the complexities regarding race within the early years of the church, but also developing the characters of the individuals portrayed,” Halversen said. “Too many of us don’t know their stories, and I am grateful for Mauli and the work he did to fix that problem.”
Honoring Black Saints’ history
King said as people expose themselves to the stories of Black members, “You will come to know yourself and come to know that Black lives bless.” Listening to other’s stories helps individuals see Christ in different ways.
By further bringing the Black Latter-day Saint perspective to light, King said members of the Church will be more united in Christ and have the opportunity to be more successful ambassadors to the gathering of Israel. She hopes all members can be better about learning the history of Black members in the Church and actively make today’s world a better place for them.
King said while individuals can’t change the entire world, “we can make the spaces we occupy safe and it starts in our families and our wards.”
After finishing the movie, Bonner realized there were no monuments in Utah dedicated to the Black Saints who helped establish Utah and contributed to the early Church. Because of this, Bonner decided all proceeds from the film would go to funding a monument to honor and remember the sacrifice and faith of the Black pioneers. He hopes this monument will “add a piece of remembrance for generations to come.”
Bonner pointed out the strength and testimony Black members must have had to labor on and make donations for the construction of the Salt Lake temple when they knew they couldn’t step foot inside. “Their faith allows me to realize there is nothing I can’t endure for the Lord,” Bonner said. He hopes all members of the Church today will draw strength from their faith and testimonies.
Official plans and details on the monument are unclear at the moment, but Bonner is working hard to get his dream realized. He has already met with This is the Place Heritage Park and begun discussions with them on building a monument for the Black pioneers in the park.
Bonner has also met with leaders of the Church to discuss another potential monument to be built at Temple Square in honor of the early pioneers’ contributions to the Salt Lake Temple. As of right now, the outlook for both monuments is positive and Bonner is hopeful they will be built in the next few years.
To watch the film, individuals can purchase a “watch party” on the Green Flake website which includes access to the film for 24 hours and a Q&A session with the director and some of the cast. There are only four more screenings left which will be on July 9, 10, 23 and the final screening on Pioneer Day, July 24. All proceeds from the watch parties go to funding the monuments. The website has links to resources for people to learn more about Black Latter-day Saint history and a page dedicated to a free benefit concert where viewers can watch and donate to funding the monuments.
Some resources for Black Church history King suggests starting with include “A Century of Black Mormons” by University of Utah history professor Paul Reeve, the movie “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons,” and the book trilogy “Standing on the Promises” by Margaret Young and Darius Gray. The second book in Young and Gray’s trilogy is called “Bound for Canaan” and includes many details of Green Flake’s life and the pioneer trek west to Utah.