At their best, documentary films document some phenomenon of culture or nature that needs to be seen, reckoned with, learned from. A great documentary bears witness to truths that need to be told and stories that need to be remembered, especially in a cultural zeitgeist as noisy and forgetful as ours.
Emanuel is a powerful documentary, for all these reasons and more. In an American society where the ubiquity of mass shootings and racially motivated violence leave some tragically numb to their evil, films like this are urgent and important.
Emanuel reminds us. It reminds us of what happened at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, and what happened two days later in a courtroom. It reminds us of the evils inflicted on black Americans for centuries. It reminds us of the ongoing pain of racism and the often-scandalous power of forgiveness. It reminds us to not dismiss this massacre as just the isolated action of one unhinged young white supremacist—but to reckon with the sort of society and the web of ideas that could lead a 21-year-old man to enter a historic black church, sit through a Bible study with mostly older congregants, and then, when the group closed their eyes to pray, take out a gun and slaughter them.
Take your small group, your friends and family. Churches: Buy out theaters.
The film, produced by Steph Curry and Viola Davis, will show in U.S. theaters on June 17 and 19. Go see it. Take your small group, your friends and family. Churches: Buy out theaters. Emanuel is difficult to watch, yes. But it’s essential viewing.
Emanuel is directed by Brian Ivie, whose 2015 documentary The Drop Box was a moving look at South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak’s efforts to save abandoned babies. Like that film, Emanuel looks at Christians whose faith prompts radical responses to tragic circumstances.
Ivie focuses on a handful of Emanuel survivors and family members of those killed. These include Nadine Collier, whose mother, Ethel, was killed in the massacre and who wrenchingly describes hearing that her mother didn’t make it out of the Bible study alive. “What hurt the most is I didn’t get a chance to see her,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me see my mama.”
We listen as Polly Sheppard recounts the terrifying moment when, hiding under a table, Roof pointed the gun at her and asked, “Did I shoot you yet?” To which she replied, “No.” Roof then said, “I’m not going to. I’m going to leave you here to tell the story.”
Felicia Sanders shares a harrowing story of surviving by lying on the ground with her 5-year-old granddaughter and playing dead, even as her 26-year-old son Tywanza tried to reason with Roof, telling him he didn’t have to this. Roof shot and killed Tywanza, the youngest of the attack’s nine victims, which also included pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Sanders had to watch her son as he took his last breath.
These three women—Nadine, Polly, and Felicia—are the heart of the film. Despite the traumas they’ve endured, each bears witness to the amazing and costly grace of Christ that leads them to love and forgive their enemy. Each finds solace in the truth of their church’s name. God is with us. He is the God who suffered and bled and felt the scourge of hate. He is with us in suffering. And yet even as he suffered, even on the cross, he said of his killers, “Father, forgive them.”
God is with us. He is the God who suffered and bled and felt the scourge of hate. He is with us in suffering. And yet even as he suffered, even on the cross, he said of his killers, ‘Father, forgive them.’
At Roof’s bond hearing, 48 hours after the shooting, Nadine addressed her mother’s killer by saying, “I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” Felicia addressed her son’s killer by admitting her deep pain (“Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same.”) but also saying to Roof: “As we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.” In the film Polly talks about how she didn’t want Roof to receive the death sentence. “I wanted him to live so maybe he could repent, turn his life around.”
Not all Emanuel victims forgave Roof. The documentary is wise to acknowledge that some felt the quick forgiveness was too easy, dodging or minimizing deeper questions about racism. Does the “feel good” forgiveness aspect of this story let society off the hook for the uglier realities it exposes? Ivie leans into this question in Emanuel, even as he rightly celebrates the beauty of forgiveness and the unique responses to suffering and hate that Christianity enables.
The film does a good job situating the Emanuel massacre in a bigger picture, even as it focuses intimately on those most closely affected. Emanuel incorporates the voices of an array of historians, scholars, politicians, and activists—including Walter Strickland of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary—who speak to the larger contexts of the black church, “Mother” Emanuel in particular, and Charleston’s fraught racial history.
The context makes the attack on Emanuel all the more painful. This wasn’t just a random location. It was a black church, a cultural institution described in the film as “a home away from home” and “that space where the black community had a sense of ownership.” As one character remarks, “If you want to hurt someone or something, you go after what matters to them.” That’s why massacres at houses of worship, like the recent New Zealand mosque attack or Sri Lanka church attack, feel especially heinous. To desecrate sacred spaces in this way is to pierce the heart of a community’s identity and place of peace.
To desecrate sacred spaces in this way is to pierce the heart of a community’s identity and place of peace.
This is especially true of the shooting at Emanuel, which isn’t just a random black church. It’s the oldest AME church and first freestanding black church in the South, an enduring symbol of black strength and resilience in the face of oppression.
And Charleston isn’t just a random city. It was the main port city of the slave trade, the Civil War’s origin point, and a city whose highly charged racial history included the Denmark Vesey slave revolt, countless church burnings, and—just a few months before the Emanuel massacre—the shooting of Walter Scott.
Into this history enters Dylann Roof, a young man prosecutors said was “self-radicalized” online—formed into a terrorist by an evil internet culture where existing tendencies (be it racism or nationalism or any other ism) can be inflamed by all manner of conspiracy theories and niche propaganda.
The film shows haunting surveillance footage of Roof entering and exiting Emanuel church before and after the massacre—a massacre he reportedly told investigators he almost didn’t carry out when the Bible study members were so kind to him.
Yet most haunting are the questions that linger about Roof and his motives. To be sure, his evil acts are his alone in the sense that every individual is personally culpable for the sins he commits. But we can affirm this even as we consider the contexts that formed Roof and what we can do—what we must do, out of love for our neighbor—to address them.
What can we do about the toxicity of the internet and the way it can be a breeding ground for all manner of grievances, prejudices, and proclivities? How can the church lead in efforts to model empathy and fellowship across the lines of race and politics? How can white Christian leaders confront subtle and overt white supremacy in their communities? How might we diffuse the fear, anger, and denial that often makes conversations about race so unproductive?
These are just some of the questions Emanuel raises. Their complexity may scare off some Christians. Others might be exhausted by the conversation. Still more may be tempted to watch Emanuel and find its depiction of a tragedy compelling, but of no practical relevance to their lives. If so, that would only compound the tragedy.