Mormon Woman, Artist, Filmmaker on Heart of Africa

When considering people who have had an influence in Mormon literary art and film, Margaret Blair Young’s name surfaces among those of greatest influence. A creative writing instructor at Brigham Young University and a leading Mormon author in her own right, Young has, most recently, paired up with Darius Gray, founder of Genesis Group, and, together, determined to bring the stories of African American Mormons to the forefront of LDS cultural knowledge. The pair have given us the Standing on the Promises trilogy, a series of novels that fictionalize the real lives of Mormon African Americans, and the documentary film Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. Her current project, a feature film titled Heart of Africa, is based on the experiences of a real-life American missionary from Idaho and his Congolese missionary companion as they forge both a relationship that supersedes their cultural prejudices and spreads the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on the African continent. Many consider it a rebuttal of sorts to the popular Book of Mormon Musical. While Young expects LDS audiences to gravitate to the film, her aspiration reaches far beyond the LDS world; Heart of Africa carries a universal message of hope and redemption. The players and the situation just happen to be Mormon.

The film project is progressing well, and Young is in the midst of raising funds through a Heart of Africa Kickstarter campaign. I am supporting the film for many reasons, not the least of which is because Young is one of the most dynamic and driven artists Mormonism has produced. She recently agreed to answer questions regarding Heart of Africa, and, because of my interest in the experiences of LDS women, particularly in the arts, I made gender the focus of my questions.

LTD: In an interview earlier this month with Segullah, you were asked which stories in the film moved you the most. You spoke in affectionate and powerful terms of the lives of women, both of characters who appear in the film and of real-world women you’ve encountered from the Congo. Could you elaborate on these women? What strength can we draw from hearing their stories? What do you think they would like American women to understand about their lives?

MBY: The real-life women on whom I based several characters are remarkable.  They are very aware of gender issues and take exception to customs in the Congo and in much of Africa of seating the man first, or of having women eat in a separate room from the men.  Steffy Mujinga Mbuyi, the young woman whose wedding I attended when she married Aime Mbuyi, on whom I based the former revolutionary’s character, is the best bargainer I have ever seen.  In Ghana, we had been told that we would need to pay $600. USD to film at Elmina Slave Castle.  It turned out that we were required to pay only a small entrance fee.  So we had all of these Ghanain Cedis—not exchangeable in the U.S. (so we learned)—which we needed to spend quickly, as we were returning to the US the next day.  We decided to buy Kickstarter incentive rewards.  Steffy bargained with the artist whose work we were looking at.  She was spectacular.  She got him down to a third of what he had been asking, which I thought was an amazing price.  When he wouldn’t go down another level, she started walking away.  At this point, I thought we’d lose the deal, so I said, “Let’s buy them!”  We did buy them, but Steffy was disappointed that she hadn’t moved him further.  She said, “He won.”  The artist grinned as I paid him and said of Steffy, “That woman is really good.  Take her with you whenever you’re buying things in Ghana.”  Later, I asked Steffy what made Congolese women so strong.  She said, “We have to survive, so we use our imaginations to make do with whatever we have.  Americans can just buy whatever they want.”

There are two scenes in the film which have particular significance to me in honoring African women.  One takes place in a slave castle which the missionaries are touring.  The Anglo missionary from Idaho gets lost, bumps his head, and has either a vision or a dream—the audience can decide. This is my description in the screenplay:

973-Heart-of-AfricaPRICE sees an image of his mother, ghostly and just above the slave’s head.
SLAVE: Ba mama!
(Same whisper as PRICE. An image of the slave’s mother appears.)
The two mothers reach their arms to encircle and bless their
two sons. The slave’s mother wears distinctive tribal
clothing, which will be mirrored by Yvette in the final
scene. We hear strains of Edwardine’s Theme rising above the
sounds of slaves groaning.

The final scene alluded to is this one. Yvette, the girlfriend of the Congolese missionary, has been raped by the missionary’s best friend in an act of revenge. The friend has become a policeman. In the final scene, we see Yvette as Mother Africa. (Well, I know what she symbolizes, but the audience may choose whatever they want.)

Ntumba is the friend; Kandu the Congolese missionary; Yvette his girlfriend.

NTUMBA, in his police uniform, is at the airport behind a
chain link fence beside a crowd. Yvette begins making her
way towards the plane, where Kandu will disembark. She walks
across the tarmac, while a police officer tries to stop her.
The officer turns away when she glances at him. She doesn’t
stop. Others make a path for her, clearly moved by her
queenly demeanor.

KANDU stands at the top of the plane’s stairs. He looks down
at NTUMBA briefly. The sun is at the perfect angle to
backlight KANDU’S entire body, making him appear luminous.

As KANDU looks at him, NTUMBA takes a step back, and then walks away.

YVETTE moves with utter dignity, clothed in robes similar to
the slave’s mother in the slave castle scene. She is Mother
Africa, empowered. She will never be permanently conquered.
We see KANDU meeting YVETTE’S eyes, both of them smiling. He
takes his first step down the plane’s stairs. As he
approaches Yvette, he spreads his arms like wings, ready to
embrace her.

LTD: Margaret, you have been successful at so many things. You began your career in the 1980s, teaching at Brigham Young University. Then you climbed to the top of the Mormon literary world and, more recently, have ventured into film. Have you faced difficulties that may be specific to your gender? What advice would you give other LDS women who have artistic ambitions?

MBY: Go for it.  That’s it.  I designated my kids’ nap time as my writing time, not my housekeeping time.  So, my house will never appear in “Dimensions of Tidiness Magazine.”  But some of what I’ve done will actually endure, particularly the things I’ve done with Darius Gray on race issues.  The fact that I see Jane Manning James’s name all over the place now is gratifying.  That could well have happened without what Darius and I did in our books (Standing on the Promises) and our documentaries, and my play (I Am Jane), but I’d like to think we’ve made an impact.

I am driven.  I take failure as invitation to improve.  So whenever I got rejection letters, I was actually energized to figure out why my piece had been rejected and to make it work.  I loved interacting with editors.  I loved GOOD criticism.  I still do.  I will be meeting with two members of our film team, Sterling Van Wagenen and someone else I can’t yet name, next week to take the screenplay to a new level. Can’t wait.

 LTD: You have said that Heart of Africa will likely bear different meaning for different people, depending on who they are and what they need. But what does Heart of Africa mean specifically to you? How does its creation fill a need in you?

MBY: A huge part of my life’s mission, for which I have been prepared from my birth.  Everything I have gone through in my life, including being born Blair and to a family which welcomed other cultures, has prepared me for this.  It’s not just the film, but my entire future with Bruce.  We are preparing to live in the Congo for many years, perhaps for the rest of our lives.  Bruce is wrapping his BYU career, and when he feels ready, we will submit mission papers.  We know that we can request the Congo as our destination and get it, since more than half of senior couples called there decline the call. Until then, I will be back and forth between the DR-C and Utah, making movies and helping the Congolese future filmmakers prepare to launch the film industry there.

I was surprised when we were called to a French MTC branch in April 2007.  I am fluent in Spanish and Bruce speaks it fairly well.  I assumed that we would be with Spanish speakers. I could never have imagined what was beginning that first night we met new missionaries headed to French-speaking countries, and particularly the Congo.  We got only two years in the MTC before Bruce was called as a bishop, but everything was put into motion there.  My oldest son is not at all interested in the LDS Church, and I wanted to be a missionary mom.  I was a great missionary mom to fifteen or twenty missionaries (depending on the day) in the Congo.  To say that it was life changing would be a gross understatement.

LTD: Your kickstarter goal is $30K. How far along in the process of producing the film are you?

MBY: Our entire budget is $800,000.  We are under the fiscal sponsorship of Independent Features Project, which allows us to do Kickstarter but also makes large donations tax-deductible.  So I have been able to apply (successfully) for several grants.  That has helped.  We will raise what we can under the IFP umbrella until mid-April.  At that point, if we still need money, we will close up IFP and accept investments.  We plan on heading to South Africa and the Congo in August.

For a preview of Heart of Africa, or to donate to the film’s Kickstarter, please click here. The donation period ends Tuesday, March 17 at 1 am CST. As with all Kickstarter fundraising campaign, no donation is processed unless and until the established goal is reached.

Wherefore, I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another. And when the two nations shall run together the testimony of the two nations shall run together also. (2 N. 2:8)


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