The story of Yahweh Ben Yahweh is ripe for a 2019 revisit. Born Hulon Mitchell Jr., Yahweh Ben Yahweh founded the namesake Nation of Yahweh in 1979, a loose branch of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. He was reportedly influenced by the Nation of Islam and championed God and biblical prophets as black, while condemning the “white devils.” Through Yahweh Ben Yahweh—the son of God—black salvation would finally be fully achieved.
Oxygen’s new documentary Uncovered: The Cult of Yahweh Ben Yahweh (which airs Sunday) attempts to chronicle his rise from small-time Miami prophet to convict serving time for conspiracy to commit murder. Relying predominantly on testimony from then-law enforcement agents and local journalists, it tells the story of an eccentric man with an affinity for stark white robes and turbans embroidered with gold. He gained a following for his spirit sermons exalting self-reliance and urban renewal. As for how the documentary tells that story, it’s dismal. The nearly hour-and-a-half program gets so bogged down in the details of a multi-decade narrative that it loses all semblance of intrigue into an enigmatic preacher in the pursuit of brevity.
At its peak, the Nation of Yahweh housed churches in 45 cities and 16 countries, according to the documentary. They claimed to have millions of followers listening to every word of their singular leader. But initially, Yahweh Ben Yahweh housed his church in the “Temple of Love” multi-use complex inside a predominately black Miami neighborhood called Liberty City. It garnered the intrigue of local Miami press who highlighted his efforts to clean up impoverished communities. In Opa-Locka, Florida, he was praised for turning a rundown apartment building into a thriving community of followers. But as his power grew, so too did his abuse. It would later be revealed that he forcibly and illegally kicked out current tenants to make room for Nation of Yahweh members. Residents Anthony Brown and Rudolph Broussard publicly spoke out—a price they paid for.
Brown and Broussard were shot outside the apartment building in October 1986. It wasn’t the first time the Nation of Yahweh allegedly killed their contrarians. In 1986, nine people were murdered and had their ears severed throughout Miami-Dade County. National of Yahweh cult member Robert Rozier served 22 years for the killings. Uncovered spends almost as much time on Rozier, who ratted out Yahweh as the mastermind behind the attacks. He claimed Yahweh once said, “Bring me the ears of the white devil.”
The severed ear killings aren’t the only Nation of Yahweh-connected murders. In 1981, former member Aston Green was found decapitated in the Florida Everglades, with his faced bruised, his left eye swollen shut and his body covered in shoe marks. The only former member of Nation of Yahweh featured in the documentary—Khalil Amani—tells the story. The day of the murder, Amani says, he was standing guard as the Yahweh brothers beat Green, wrapped him in a rug with tape around his face, and shoved him into the trunk of a car, allegedly to later behead and dispose of him.
Later, Green’s roommates Carlton Carey and Mildred Banks went to police with information about the killer, presumably a member of the Nation of Yahweh. Upon returning home, Carey and Banks are ambushed outside their front door. Carey is killed while Banks is shot, stabbed with a machete, and found by her neighbors, who took her to Miami International Hospital. She survived but couldn’t identify her assailants.
In relying solely on Amani’s testimony, the documentary fails in its journalistic duty. Amani’s tale of witnessing Green’s beating is never interrogated by the film. It’s unclear why he never stepped in or went to the police. His words are taken as the truth of a noble man who left everything, including his wife and his kids, to free himself from an abusive cult and now speaks out about his horrific experiences.
He’s not the only one unjustly spared. Yahweh Ben Yahweh’s defense attorney Jayne Weintraub is not pressed on why she took on such a controversial figure, one she ultimately got off free on state murder charges in 1992. (Yahweh Ben Yahweh would still go on to serve 11 years of an 18-year sentence for a federal charge of conspiracy to commit murder.) What could have been an immersive dive into another charismatic man who used his power for abuse and manipulation turns into a Wikipedia page retelling of a 1980s criminal.
Like many cult leaders, Ben Yahweh was also alleged to have slept with his female followers. The documentary claims he sent fathers away to various U.S. cities to expand the church’s message only to return and find their families living with Ben Yahweh. Amani provides his own testimony to back up this claim.
It’s unfortunate that a narrative involving racial politics and allegations of abuse falls so flat today. Part of its dullness lies in the traditional framework of a cable program, where commercial breaks spur rough cliffhangers. Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly changed the TV documentary landscape with expansive interviews, cinematic imagery and nuanced storytelling. The standard sensationalized Oxygen documentary can’t begin to compare.
The documentary strikes its strongest chord when Yahweh Ben Yahweh’s daughter Venita Mitchell provides her perspective. Mitchell is distraught and unwavering in her belief that her father was entirely innocent. She rails against the demonization of a community activist and cries profusely on screen. It’s in these few moments with Mitchell that it’s clear just how important this story is and what the ramifications are of the life of an infamous prophet.
Yahweh ben Yahweh was released in 2001. Less than a year and a half later, he died at the age of 71 after contracting cancer. He leaves behind him a fascinating, torrid legacy. Unfortunately, Uncovered does more regurgitating of old information than unveiling of worthwhile updates.