Mauli Junior Bonner stood backstage after performing with his family during the Church’s “Be One” celebration on June 1, 2018.
The 90-minute event at the Conference Center marked, through song, dance and the spoken word, the 40th anniversary of Church’s June 1978 revelation that extended the blessings of the priesthood and the temple to all of God’s children. The name of the event — “Be One” — referenced the Savior’s teaching, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27).
“I was learning about early Black history in the Church through that celebration, and it was incredible and inspiring,” Bonner recalled.
The moment became of the “greatest experiences of his life” as he felt united with Church leaders and members. As an African-American Latter-day Saint, it made him want to learn more about his own history and about early Church history — including the experiences of early Church members who were enslaved African Americans.
He began to study the life of Green Flake — who was born into slavery in the mid 1820s and was in the first company of pioneering Latter-day Saints to reach the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
“There were human beings that endured something that I’ll never understand fully or experience, and I can draw strength from them,” Bonner said during a Church News podcast interview.
Episode 34: Church historian Richard Turley and filmmaker Mauli Junior Bonner on the importance of early Black pioneers
His reading about early Church history turned to writing and songwriting. Before he knew it, he was writing a film. “Somehow, I made this film. And I knew it had to be done. That’s all that I knew,” said the first-time writer, producer and director.
The film, “His Name Is Green Flake,” has been recognized as “best film” at the Venice Film Awards, the London Independent Film Awards, and the LA Film Awards.
“My personal desire is that Church history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our rich history, can be a part of American history,” said Bonner.
He hopes that others will draw strength from Green Flake’s faith-building story.
“When we think of Joseph of Egypt; and the Jews of Israel; and Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Daniel in the lion’s den; they, too, shared portions of their life enslaved, like Green Flake and others. We would not dream of removing their enslavement from their story. We draw strength from that.”
Bonner also draws strength from looking at the Salt Lake Temple — currently being renovated. Enslaved members and other free African-American pioneers contributed to building the temple.
“For them to contribute to that and not be able to realize their families being reunited in their lifetime, to not see the outcome, but to have faith that the Lord’s will be done — that strengthens me so much. That should strengthen everyone. We will never understand fully what kind of faith that takes.”