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Netflix's 'Murder Among the Mormons' uses the same stereotypes about our faith as the villain

The filmmakers rely on clichés (and worse) in portraying the church and its members, who were victimized by a criminal who tried to undermine their faith.
A scene from Netflix's \"Murder Among the Mormons.\"
A scene from Netflix's "Murder Among the Mormons."Netflix

One of the most audacious and devious forgers in U.S. history, Mark Hofmann spent the early 1980s deceiving (and ripping off) individuals and organizations with never-before-seen documents and letters. His victims included the Library of Congress, other parts of the U.S. government, scores of private collectors, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his own business partners — who lost everything because of him.

And yet, the title of Netflix's new documentary about his crimes doesn't reference his prolific time as a forger; it's not called "Lying to the Library of Congress" or "Forging the Founding Fathers." It doesn't even, as such true crime documentaries often do, reference Hofmann's own name.

Instead, the documentary, created by Jared Hess ("Napoleon Dynamite") and Tyler Measom ("Jesus Town, USA"), is called "Murder Among the Mormons." It's currently on Netflix's "Top 10" list all over the United States.

While both filmmakers swore to Esquire that they "didn't have an axe to grind" with the church, it's clear that even if they didn't intend to lean in to stereotypes about those of the Mormon faith, they certainly didn't shy away from them — even though Hofmann, born to a longtime Mormon family, was an avowed atheist who allegedly took pleasure in deceiving members of his former faith.

For instance, the filmmakers present Mormon beliefs to their viewers by showing clips from a 1970s kooky educational film. They intersperse footage the Salt Lake Temple or Church Office Building headquarters — as well as video clips of Mormons speaking from a pulpit, playing a board game, walking into a church meeting house, teaching lessons in the home, doing missionary work or singing hymns — against dark moments in the story full of ominous music.

The voiceovers and interview commentary add to the aura of suspicion that gets cast over the church, its members and its leaders.

They also allow numerous digs against the church by critics of the faith or former members: "The church would try to hide documents that proved embarrassing to them," or, "The [leaders of the church] propagated false narratives," or that a member of the church supposedly "became visibly upset" when he saw a children's book about dinosaurs because it "promoted evolution."

Dark aspersions, innuendos and accusations against the church and its leaders are allowed to pile up as interviewees accuse the church of having nefarious motivations for wanting to purchase any of Hofmann's allegedly authenticated historical documents about its own history in the first place.

Worse, the first two parts of the three-part series leave viewers believing that church leaders may even be behind a plot to commit the very murders of which Hoffman was convicted. One interviewee says, "We started realizing the Mormon church is in play and that there was something really wrong here," and adds later that the church "impeded [the murder] investigation." Another says that "it appears that dealing in Mormon documents can be a dangerous business" — a sentiment repeated multiple times in the first episode, even though all the danger actually came from Hofmann's forging said documents and not wanting to be found out.

The voiceovers and interview commentary add to the aura of suspicion that gets cast over the church, its members and its leaders.

"Murder Among the Mormons" will seemingly be able to misrepresent the LDS church yet again to a mainstream audience with little to no consequence.

Whether suggesting that a plane "landing in Salt Lake City" meant passengers needed to "set their watch back 10 years" or that "the bombing's impact has drawn the church into an uncomfortable spotlight," rather than the church being horrified that people were killed, the filmmakers presented Salt Lake City and its Mormon residents as uniquely backward, uniquely weird and uniquely insular in a way the city, the people and the church simply were not at the time. And that's before they use an old news segment calling the affair "a Watergate-style cover-up and one of the wealthiest if not the most wealthy church in America involved, the Mormon church" — which is a pretty broad mischaracterization.

Meanwhile, Hofmann gets a somewhat glossier treatment for a man who killed two people and maimed himself in a series of bombings designed to draw attention away from his crimes. He later admitted to the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole that planting the bomb that killed one of his victims was "a game" to him and that it "didn't matter" if the bomb would have been discovered instead by "a child, a dog ... whoever."

But the filmmakers spend the majority of the series interviewing his former wife, his close friends and former neighbors, one-time co-workers, a former classmate, business partners and even one individual who speaks about Hofmann with such respect and reverence that a Vox writer wondered if he may have been an accomplice. The film shows home movies of Hofmann doting on his wife and children and ends with uplifting music and a former Hofmann associate saying, "He was fantastic. No one has come close to doing what he has done."

The latter, at least, is true, albeit not in the way the speaker intended nor in a way the filmmakers bothered to explore in any real way. Hofmann's forgeries were seemingly designed to undermine the faith of other Mormons as well as make him money. As one interviewee says, "He could come up with plausible things that changed the history in ways that reflected badly on Mormon belief and that encouraged Mormons to leave their faith."

Dark aspersions, innuendos and accusations against the church and its leaders are allowed to pile up as interviewees accuse the church of having nefarious motivations.

One of Hofmann's forgeries, for instance, involved creating a letter that said Joseph Smith — the religion's founder — was led to the gold plates known as the Book of Mormon by a white salamander and not by an angel. In another forgery, Smith's wife, Emma, allegedly claimed to a third party that her husband had committed adultery.

Because these forgeries were originally authenticated by scholars, some members of the Mormon church spent the early 1980s going through a genuine crisis of faith. And as one of the church's leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, acknowledged at the time, Hofmann's forgeries had led to "some of the most intense LDS church-bashing since the turn of the century."

Though the filmmakers knew how much damage these forgeries caused to Mormons in the 1980s, they not only chose to amplify each one of them but they also failed to truly account for that damage or present the faith in a different light than Hofmann himself wanted.

For all his depredations, Hofmann is certainly worthy of the same kind of true crime documentary we've seen in recent years. His work included forged signatures and documents from the likes of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, Mark Twain, Betsy Ross, Francis Scott Key and Paul Revere. He once even wrote an entire poem that scholars authenticated as being written by Emily Dickinson. And he did, in fact, bomb himself, either in a suicide attempt or to keep himself from becoming a suspect.

But this documentary is almost less about Hofmann than it is about Mormonism and not in an even-handed or even educational way. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a minority religion in the United States, has been targeted and misrepresented too many times already. As church member McKay Coppins wrote recently for The Atlantic, Mormonism lacks the "cultural cachet" of other minority religions in America. People hardly notice when we're being mocked, misrepresented or stereotyped — or, worse, they think we earned or deserve that.

If its increasing cultural cachet is any indication, "Murder Among the Mormons" will be able to misrepresent the LDS church yet again to a mainstream audience with little to no consequence, even as the murderer they're documenting would likely appreciate the assistance.