FREETOWN, an indie film (called a "religious thriller") was released less than two weeks ago in select theaters across the United States. The movie--in its first seven days--has grossed nearly a quarter of a million dollars. For most independent films, this amount in its entire run would be a dream. But for a film set in Liberia, featuring a cast of virtual unknowns, its seven-day gross is certainly something that is turning heads.
But the promising first week is not the reason why audiences are talking about FREETOWN. Can you guess what it is? It's not the box office and not the national theatrical release.
It's a film about black Mormon missionaries.
It's no secret that the Mormon Church has somewhat of a controversial past when it comes to issues of race. Until a revelation given to then prophet Spencer W. Kimball in 1978 changed the practice, the church had banned the priesthood from all black members. In fact, many members of the church (myself included) freely admit to not really knowing how to address the priesthood ban practiced and taught throughout the church since the days of Brigham Young. Just last year church leaders released a series of essays on it's official website, lds.org, taking a scholarly, candid approach to several controversial topics relating to the church. Essays addressed themes such as the church's early practice of polygamy, or DNA studies and The Book of Mormon, or yes, even the topic of race and the Priesthood.
So, how are the Mormons handling a theatrically released feature film that draws attention to the "cognitive dissonance" as one of the characters in FREETOWN refers to the priesthood ban? Yes, right in plain sight, not hidden in metaphor, or slow-tossed like a softball, you have a black Mormon missionary, discussing with a black Mormon leader the feelings of confusion that he felt when he first learned of the, according to the character's dialogue, "racist policy." The discussion is out there, for all to see and hear, in 5.1 surround sound. Heavy themes are prevalent throughout the often suspenseful and thought-provoking film. It's something you'd think "the faithful" would avoid.
But, to their remarkable credit, they aren't shying away from it--not at all. They're speaking up on twitter, they're inviting their non-Mormon friends, they're even organizing in groups and requesting screenings in their areas. From packed theaters in Washington D.C., to Oxnard, CA, to as far away as Accra, Ghana, FREETOWN seems to have become more than a simple "Meet the Mormons - Africa Edition." It's providing an opportunity for Mormons of all types to speak loud and clear about acknowledging their past, being responsible for their present, and moving ahead as a multi-racial, world-wide church, embracing the future.
As a practicing Mormon, I applaud the makers of this FREETOWN for bringing poignant questions to the screen in a powerful, faith-promoting way. Click here to check for local listings.