On June 17, 2015, a security camera captured the image of Dylann Roof walking into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He proceeded to participate in the Bible study taking place in the basement. When the participants bowed their heads and closed their eyes for a closing prayer, he pulled a gun and opened fire, killing eight people on the spot and leaving one fatally injured who later died in the hospital. Five people survived unharmed.
Four years later, documentary filmmaker Brian Ivie, together with executive producers Viola Davis and Stephen Curry, bring us “Emanuel,” a film that celebrates the lives of the “Charleston Nine,” as they are called, as well as the faith and forgiveness of the survivors and family members. The film will be released to theaters for a special two-night-only run on June 17 and 19.
In the midst of this moving documentary, we meet those most affected by the shootings, family members of the victims, and hear their stories. Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, tells of the harrowing journey she went through trying to get information about her Mom when she learned of the shooting. Chris Singleton, a MLB prospect at the time (drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2017), missed the Bible study that night because he was playing baseball. Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson, talks about the great love present in his marriage. Melvin Graham, Jr., brother of Cynthia Hurd, courageously but honestly admits that forgiveness seems out of his reach so far.
Also interviewed are the survivors who were there that night. Felicia Sanders, watched her son, victim Tywanza Sanders, try to reason with Roof and unsuccessfully protect his great-aunt victim Susie Jackson. We hear the chilling 911 call made by Jennifer Pinckney, wife of South Carolina state senator and pastor of Emanuel AME, victim Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was in her husband’s office when the shooting started.
A bit of history sets the stage. In the 1800’s, Charleston was the premier slave port, receiving 40% of the slaves that came to our shores. Worship was the only respite slaves had where they could be and express themselves out of the control of whites. Emanuel AME, sometimes called “Mother Emanuel,” was the first free-standing black church in the south. As an anti-slavery church, it was burned down after Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, was implicated in planning a slave revolt. Rebuilt right after the Civil War, it was destroyed in an 1886 earthquake. The current church was built in 1891.
“Emanuel” chooses to focus on the good that has come from the tragedy of June 17, 2015. In an impromptu move, the judge at suspect Dylann Roof’s bond hearing invited family members of the victims to directly address Roof. The overwhelming sentiment was one of forgiveness and hope that God would have mercy on him for what he did. Roof’s confession, recorded during a police interview, shows a young man, motivated by racial hatred, with no remorse for his actions. In stark contrast, the message that the power of love overcomes hate shines through in the people closest to the victims.
The film is rounded off with interviews with some of the reporters who were dealing with their own emotions while striving to maintain professionalism in covering the event and its aftermath. Former Charleston mayor Joe Riley and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called for unity and justice. Some of the most moving footage comes from the eulogy delivered at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral by former President Barak Obama. During the memorable speech, he slid into “preacher mode” himself for a bit, acknowledging that from this act of hate and violence came multiple examples of love, faith, forgiveness, and grace. He said, “God works in mysterious ways.”
Some may consider it too soon to make a film about what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting at an American place of worship. While the film does chronicle the happenings of that tragic day and the ones that followed, it ultimately gives hope – hope that if any people who suffer violence and hate choose to respond with love and forgiveness, then our world can be transformed, one act of love at a time, into a place of peace for every living person.