A documentary about the aftermath of 2015’s Mother Emanuel church shootings testifies to the power of community and forgiveness

By Bliss Bowen

Mother Emanuel AME Church, a target of one of America’s most violent hate crimes, still stands as a beacon of black pride and independence
Courtesy of Arbella Studios

The slaughter of nine parishioners as their Bible study ended at Charleston, South Carolina’s 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015, was an explosive violation of faith — both civic and religious — that seared the conscience of many Americans like a don’t-forget-this tattoo.

Our society has traditionally honored certain spaces as sacrosanct, where tolerance rules by covenant. When 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof methodically shot those nine African-American churchgoers as they prayed, after first sitting through Bible study with them, it was proof (as if any were needed) of his ideology’s cold-blooded hate and irreverence.

It’s not like sanctuaries haven’t been bloodied before, but the Mother Emanuel “execution” (in the words of one victim’s brother) was different for two reasons that jolt director Brian Ivie’s new documentary “Emanuel,” executive produced by NBA star Stephen Curry and actress Viola Davis, with electric force.

First, Mother Emanuel, an anti-slavery church, is the oldest AME Church in the South, an enduring symbol of liberation, social justice and African-American agency.

Second, two days after the shooting, at Roof’s bond hearing, families of some of the victims rose one by one in court, shared their intense grief — and forgave him. In the aftermath of the Michael Brown and Walter Scott police shootings, the Ferguson riot and other brutalities, it was a thunderbolt no one — not even the families — anticipated.

That astonishing fact alone makes “Emanuel” riveting. But if their forgiveness makes the film uplifting, then Ivie’s willingness to listen to critics of their choice renders it more meaningfully provocative.

“A lot of ‘Christian films,’ if that’s even a thing, avoid hard topics and that’s why most people outside the church roll their eyes and don’t see them,” Ivie says during an email interview. “The honest truth is that even people of faith struggle, cuss, fail, forgive and don’t forgive. Everyone is on a journey and my job as a documentarian is simply to honor that journey and never impose my will on an interview subject. …

“I’m praying that this film challenges us to do the hard work, not just the easy things like taking down flags, to see real lasting change happen.”

The flag in question is Confederate, an oppressive symbol finally removed from South Carolina’s statehouse in the wake of the Mother Emanuel shooting. “Emanuel” subtly suggests that if anything good came of the murders, it was how they raised consciousness to help make that goal a reality after decades of activism.

“As my friend Reverend Darby says, it was a poor trade to lose nine souls for one flag,” Ivie says, calling it “a very, very small victory in a much more complicated and important battle for racial healing and equity in this country.”

Onscreen, Darby calmly discusses Charleston’s “dark history,” referring to the port city as “Confederate Disneyland” for tourists charmed by the rebel flag-waving, antebellum allure that “still fuels mindsets” there. “Charleston was a hub of slavery. There’s an appreciable part of black America that can trace its ancestry back to Charleston,” he notes. Reporter Glenn Smith estimates that “something on the order of 40% of the slaves that entered America came through Charleston.”

Ivie, whose 2015 film “The Drop Box” also engaged compassionate themes, says he “stayed away” from the Mother Emanuel story for almost a year, unsure whether he could do it full justice. When the one-year memorial rolled around, he headed to Charleston with a small crew to film the services.

“It was going to be a gift to the church, but ended up becoming something much bigger … we ended up meeting the families at Sticky Fingers BBQ in Charleston to talk about making a documentary — not a Hollywood movie,” he emphasizes. “The difference being that they could tell their own story. My protocol is always to meet with people first, without any cameras. It helps remind me and the subject that this isn’t about my career, but more about us telling a story together.”

Early scenes take viewers into the kitchen of Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance, as she bakes sweet potato pies and recalls how her mother used to put hot potatoes in her children’s pockets on cold days before they walked to school. It’s a warm, personal introduction to this community, which magnifies the punch when Collier tearfully recalls her mother’s killing, and the angry criticism she weathered for forgiving Roof.

“I knew that’s what my mom would want,” she says. “Not to have hatred in your heart, despite what people do to you.”

In court, fellow survivor Felicia Sanders held up her Bible for Roof to see its pages stained pink by the blood of his victims, including her son and aunt. “It’s bruised, it’s battered, it’s shot, and it’s stained. And then I started thinking about Jesus. This is my Jesus. The blood that Jesus shed for you, and me, Dylann Roof. I wanted you to see that you didn’t just kill people, you tried to kill the Word. But the Word’s still on the pages.”

“Emanuel” screens at 7 p.m. Monday (June 17) at the Laemmle Monica Film Center and Cinemark 18 and XD in HHLA. Visit emanuelmovie.com for tickets and other screenings.