Oscar-winning actor defends ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ against criticism from church-owned newspaper

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Dustin Lance Black looks a bit peeved at the Salt Lake City premiere.

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Sam Worthington, writer-producer Dustin Lance Black, actor Tyner Rushing and actor Andrew Garfield pose for photos at a premiere for the miniseries FX/Hulu “Under the Banner of Heaven” at Broadway Center Cinemas in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 25, 2022.

Oscar-winning actor Dustin Lance Black was in Salt Lake City for a premiere of “Under the Banner of Heaven” on Monday night, and by all appearances he was a happy man – except as far as “a certain newspaper here in the Salt Lake Valley.

Before and after a screening of the first two (of seven) episodes of the miniseries at Broadway cinemas, Black expressed his displeasure at a negative portrayal of him and his miniseries that was released earlier today by the Deseret News, which “said I was very angry.

The opinion piece, by Hal Boyd, is headlined, “Too much real-life anger is coming out of Tinseltown. It’s time for Dustin Lance Black and company to let go of Latter-day Saint angst. And Boyd to conclude: “We must work to foster real peace. But that will not happen if our artists continue to sell us fear and resentment.”

The FX-produced miniseries about the horrific 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, which begins airing Thursday on Hulu, is “not an easy show,” Black acknowledged. “It’s not something you walk into mindlessly, not knowing there might be a setback.”

[Read Scott D. Pierce’s review: Miniseries about the Lafferty murders can be tough to watch, but worth it.]

And during a panel discussion after the screening, Black said he felt “a different emotion than anger…when I think of the Mormon faith. You know, I grew up loving this church. I grew up loving my Mormon family. Most of my family still lives within 20 miles of here. I always appreciate the warmth and love I feel when I’m here.

Black, who left the church as a teenager, was in Salt Lake City with her husband, Olympic gold medalist diver Tom Daley, and three “Under the Banner of Heaven” cast members: Andrew Garfield, who stars as fictional detective Jeb Pyre, who investigates the Lafferty murders; Sam Worthington, who plays Ron Lafferty; and Tyner Rushing, who plays Emma Smith, the wife of the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, who is seen in flashbacks to Church history.

“Under the Banner of Heaven,” which was “inspired” by Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, is the story of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s journey from traditional Mormonism to fundamentalism and murder. And he links murders to violence throughout LDS history.

(Scott D. Pierce | The Salt Lake Tribune) Writer-producer Dustin Lance Black, left, and actor Andrew Garfield appear at a premiere for the FX/Hulu miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven,” at Broadway Center Cinemas in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 25, 2022.

Black said that in the decade he spent working to bring “Under the Banner of Heaven” to the screen, it “became something far more dangerous than anger in our faith. I’m become curious. I am not angry. I ask questions.

And he pointed out that there were “good Mormons” in the miniseries, including Brenda’s family, the Wrights, whom Black found accepting and loving, and several members of the police force. And he and Garfield both pointed fingers at Detective Pyre’s family (who is a fictional, composite character).

[Related story: Oscar winner doesn’t expect Latter-day Saints to love his miniseries about the Lafferty murders.]

“I think it’s a really beautiful and sensitive portrayal of this kind of everyday, modern Mormon family,” said Garfield, who plays Pyre. “And I can’t imagine anyone being upset about that aspect of the show, personally.”

“Oh, get ready,” Black interjected.

And, while he said he wasn’t angry, Black at least seemed irritated when he echoed a question Pyre asks in Episode 5 during the murder investigation: ” When I hear the church newspaper getting defensive about the performances, my question is… what kind of Mormons do you stand for? If you’re on the defensive either you haven’t seen [the miniseries] yet – you are relying solely on the book – or you are defending two brothers who took a sharp turn towards fundamentalism and used it to rationalize the strangulation of a mother and the beheading of her 15 month old child [daughter]. Is that why the Deseret News was so upset today? Because I went after them? Then they must look into their own hearts.

He dedicated the miniseries to the “brave” Brenda Lafferty, “who dared to challenge the status quo”. Garfield said Brenda and Erica Lafferty were “the North Star for this project”, and that he and the rest of the cast and crew were “determined that their lives” were not “lost.” in vain”.


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