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New film centers on the life of Green Flake, one of Utah's three original slave pioneers.


The grave marker for one of the first black Mormon pioneers can be found at the Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights. - PETER HOLSLIN
  • Peter Holslin
  • The grave marker for one of the first black Mormon pioneers can be found at the Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights.

They came from all over, some from different parts of Utah, others from as far as California, gathering in the winter cold amid the cottonwood trees of Fort Buenaventura Park outside Ogden.

On those days in December, the rag-tag crew included songwriters, actors and a local mountain man named Thor. There wasn't much time and barely any money. Many were amateurs in the art of movie-making, and the struggle with resources combined with the emotional weight of the topic at hand—the history of American slavery—often pushed everyone over the edge.

"We probably cried every other day on set," Mauli Bonner, director of this scrappy indie film, tells City Weekly.

In the end, they succeeded. In recent months, Bonner and a dedicated crew of friends and family have put together the main ingredients for an independent feature film they hope will shed light to an untold chapter of Mormon pioneer history—the story of Green Flake.

Flake was just a teenager when he was dispatched in the spring of 1847 on a cross-country trek to settle Salt Lake Valley as a member of Brigham Young's famed "Vanguard Company." He was one of three African-American men who joined the pioneers, each of them laboring under the bondage of slavery as they paved a trail for other Latter-day Saints to homestead in what would become the state of Utah.

Born into slavery on a North Carolina plantation and baptized as a Mormon at an early age, Flake is now celebrated as one of the first black Mormon pioneers. Scholars have spent years fleshing out his backstory, drawing from whatever bits of information they can find in census records, legal documents, family histories and newspaper clippings. He's been discussed in family histories, fictionalized accounts and mythical tales passed down through generations. Yet, in more mainstream histories, he's often mentioned only in passing.

The new film—simply titled Green Flake, which is currently in post-production, with plans for a release later this year or in 2020—seeks to give shape and meaning to the life of Flake, as well as other African-Americans from the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many of the artists behind the film are themselves black members of the flock. For them, commemorating Flake is as much a personal way to make sense of their own relationship to their faith as it is a way to bring greater depth to Mormonism's often-white, male-dominated history.

"For him to be this young teenage slave and to do what he was asked to do at such a young age—to me, that was unheard of," Bonner, who doubles as the movie's producer, says. "I just think he's a hero, and I wanted to learn more about this hero that I felt so connected to."

To understand why it would be so meaningful to tell Flake's story, simply pay a visit to the Brigham Young Monument in Temple Square.

  • Peter Holslin

A short walk from the Salt Lake Temple, a gigantic statue of Young towers high—standing as a testament to his influence on the Intermountain West and the Mormon church.

The other pioneers of the 1847 vanguard troupe are also given their due, their names listed on a bronze plaque. Oh, some other guys get a mention, too. In the bottom corner, apart from the rest, three "colored servants" are listed: Green Flake, Hark Lay and Oscar Crosby. These were the three enslaved black men who joined the vanguards, playing a role in a historic westward trek as the "property" of their Mormon masters.

Flake's fellow black pioneers later changed their names to Hark Wales and Oscar Smith, abandoning the surnames of their owners after they were freed. But this fact isn't mentioned on the monument. Still, at least we know their names—the same can't be said for many others who toiled without compensation or credit on behalf of LDS settlers in Utah Territory.

Amy Tanner Thiriot, a Pennsylvania historian and author of the forthcoming book, Slaves in Zion: African American Servitude in Utah Territory, 1847-1862, says she's compiled records of about 100 black men and women who were brought to Utah to work as slaves for early settlers and merchants. Drawing from an abundance of legal documents and other records, she's been able to create clear pictures of many of them—yet the historical record is a dusty, inconsistent thing, and sometimes she could only dig up the barest details about these folks.

"Some of them we only know by number, unfortunately," Thiriot says.

Scholars and writers have spent years trying to rectify this erasure. And lately, it seems more and more of these forgotten histories are emerging. At the University of Utah, historian W. Paul Reeve is leading the effort behind Century of Black Mormons, a database providing detailed backstories of black men and women baptized into the LDS faith (including many who were not enslaved) from 1830 to 1930.

In May, Thiriot—whose book is currently under peer review, awaiting input from fellow academics before it's published—joined a St. George genealogist and leaders of the Utah chapter of the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society (UAAHGS) to unveil a new headstone for Hark Wales in Cottonwood Heights' Union Fort Pioneer Cemetery. For more than 100 years, he'd been in an unmarked grave.

Bonner started working on the movie last year. He was inspired to write something about African-American Mormons after contributing music to Jane and Emma, a biopic that centers on Emma Smith—the wife of church founder Joseph Smith—and Jane Manning James, a much-celebrated black member of the LDS church, who for a time lived with the Smiths in Illinois. Bonner, who comes from a family of prominent Mormon musicians, also performed with his family at the "Be One" celebration, marking the 40-year anniversary of the 1978 "revelation" that reversed the infamous church policy barring black men from the priesthood.

Bonner has never made a movie before—usually he pays the bills working as a vocal director, vocal coach and songwriter for TV shows and pop singers, helping stars like Ariana Grande and Katy Perry prepare for recording sessions and tours. But the "Be One" project gave him the impetus to think big.

"I'm a songwriter, so I'm comfortable writing and telling stories. But usually I have three minutes to create a song and tell a full story, and this was unique because I had never written a screenplay before," he recalls. "I had no idea what I was doing. A lot of what I had written, I had to keep rewriting and restructuring it and comparing it to other scripts—'Oh, OK, this goes here ... this goes there.' I was learning on the job.

"It was an awesome journey for me in learning how to tell a story in this format—but also, I can't explain the spiritual experience that it was. I just felt led by the spirit, just because there was so much to read," he adds.

For research, he consulted with historians and pored over journal entries documenting the vanguard company's historic 1847 trek westward from the Mormon encampment called Winter Quarters in Nebraska across the Rockies to Salt Lake Valley. Bonner originally wanted to write something about the celebrated black missionary Elijah Abel. But he kept coming across references to a man named Green Flake.

He'd never heard of the former slave before, and soon he was fully immersed, ferreting out as much information as he could.

"This is, like, a madman with postcards laid out all over the floor, furniture moved, piecing the puzzle together, and then typing it up and then retyping it in the right format," he recalls, thinking back to his crazed writing sessions at his home in the LA suburb of Pasadena.

According to Thiriot, records and old newspaper articles suggest that Flake was charismatic, intelligent and strong even at a young age—just the kind of person Brigham Young would've needed on a death-defying trip West. With the vanguard company, Flake helped lay a road through the treacherous cliffs and canyons of the Rocky Mountains. After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, he built a cabin for the Southern-bred family that owned him.

Flake appeared to have gained his freedom in the 1850s, Thiriot writes in one account of his life. He lived until 1903 and seemed to have become a popular speaker at multiple Pioneer Day celebrations decades after his journey.

Still, life was undoubtedly difficult for Flake. Robert Burch, president of the UAAHGS, points out that no matter how this redoubtable pioneer was treated by his owners, the system of American slavery was itself an act of violence. Although there are gaps in Flake's life story, researchers have found evidence that many of his contemporaries experienced severe abuse under slavery in Utah—the owners of one man, Gobo Fango, banished him to live in a shed with farm animals and forced him to work in the winter barefoot until he lost the ability to use one of his feet.

"Anecdotally, we know that all of these people were not treated very well," Burch says.

This brutal legacy forced Bonner into a great deal of spiritual reflection. He struggled to understand why Green Flake didn't try to escape while on the 1847 trek, when he was far away from his owners. When he started working on the film with his little brother Yahosh—who he cast in the starring role—they would have long discussions. One day while on set, Yahosh remembers the two bursting into sobs after they acted together in a scene, overcome by the heaviness of what they were doing.

Their religion played a part in slavery, a brutal system whose destructive effects are still being reckoned with today. Yet Yahosh suspects that faith also helped in Flake's survival.

"I tried to think and feel what he must've felt, being a black man in the 1800s. You can just imagine the faith that he had to work as hard as he did for the survival of those who were on the trek with him," Yahosh says. "It was a hard life. He had to be strong to make it."

Bonner also sees something heaven-sent in the way Green Flake came together. It can sometimes take years for a story or idea to blossom into a full-length film, but this one—low-budget and DIY, as it was—came together in a matter of months.

"It's a plus and a minus that I don't have any education in making a movie, because I don't know what's not possible," Bonner admits. "I wrote the screenplay in July, and then August came and I was like, 'OK, this seems like it's a movie.' That wasn't my intention. Initially I was just writing, because I like to write. So then I started making phone calls to people that I thought would and should be part of making the film ... Everyone I called, when I sent them the script, they were like, 'Let's do it. I'm on board.' It was just green lights—green light, green light, green light, go."

After filming the winter scenes in December, the production team raised nearly $70,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs for another shoot this spring. In May, they put out a call on the Green Flake Facebook page for extras, inviting people of all ages to show up in their best "pioneer clothing" at Huntsville's Weber Memorial Park.

Bonner won't give an exact figure about production costs, but says the cast and crew agreed to daily rates that were substantially lower than what would normally be expected on a movie set. The Provo-based acting coach Laurie Harrop-Purser helped the amateur actors get into character, while a theater in Orem provided 19th-century style pioneer clothing. The mountain man known as Thor offered expertise in matters of bush living and made suggestions for props and costumes.

The production team finished filming in June. Now, the movie is with an editor who's working on a final cut.

Even as he puts the story of Flake together, Bonner acknowledges just how hard it is to make sense of such a formative, and yet disturbing, part of Mormon history. Part of the reason he wants to make Green Flake is so he can come to terms with this part of his faith's past and make sense of it. He wants viewers to come away feeling empowered—not defeated.

"For me, it strengthened my testimony. And that's what really made me understand that this has to be told the right way by the right people," he says. "The information's there. People are going to find out stuff and learn stuff and Google things. But I don't want them to have the wrong perception, getting it from the wrong source.

"Of course, it's odd to talk about slavery so casually, in the way we're talking about all of this," he adds. "But I hope that it's not too scary of a subject for people to check out and get to know, because I feel like it allows us to get to know Green Flake. It allows us to get to know Brigham Young in a better light than I think how he's shown. There's just so much more that we can learn from our history if we're just not afraid of the conversation."