What the Charleston Church Massacre Documentary ‘Emanuel’ Wants to Tell Us About Forgiveness

Image: Courtesy of Kevin Romeo / Arbella Studios
Director Brian Ivie (left) embraces Charleston church shooting survivor Polly Sheppard at the New York premiere of Emanuel at DOC NYC Film Festival in November 2018

by Josh M. Shepherd

“Only five of us were left after the massacre,” said Polly Sheppard.

In 2015, Sheppard was in the prayer circle at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church when a 21-year-old white supremacist started shooting. The nation’s deadliest racially motivated mass shooting at a place of worship took the lives of nine Christians she had worshiped alongside with for years: senior pastor Clementa Pinckney and congregants Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and her best friend Myra Thompson.

Four years to the day of the massacre, Emanuel, a documentary recounting their story, will openin over 1,000 theaters nationwide on Monday. Members of all nine victims’ families participated in interviews, along with survivors such as Sheppard, local reporters, the Charleston mayor, and the Charleston police chief. The film examines societal effects of racism—for this particular historic church and in the American South at large—before transitioning to the massacre and the victims’ loved ones’ subsequent acts of forgiveness.

“This film is not just about racism—it’s about grace,” said director Brian Ivie, who worked on Emanuel for three years. “It’s a story of a group of people who decided they were going to bear the full weight of the wrong and still wish good upon the wrongdoer. That is the highest form of love possible, a love that Jesus Christ perfected.”

Emanuel opens at a time when stories of people of color drifting away from evangelical churches due to increasing politicization of the gospel have made national news.

“It’s a hard movie to watch, in all honesty, because it raises poignant questions,” said Philip Pinckney, a local pastor who leads the regional reconciliation initiative 1Charleston. “What we’ve seen in Charleston is that forgiveness starts a work. Since the massacre, we’ve seen an increase in hard conversations around hard topics.”

Telling the Whole Truth

Emanuel connects the horrific events at one of the nation’s oldest black churches with centuries of racism. Drawing from court evidence, including images of the gunman proudly displaying a Confederate flag, the documentary offers insights into Roof’s motivations.

“[Roof] didn’t randomly pick up a gun,” said Ivie. “He had settled into a worldview and ideology that has been a part of our history for a long time. Motivated by that, this white person killed these black parishioners—because they were black.”

Keeping this context in mind, Ivie approached the victims’ families and survivors about telling the full story and pairing it with vignettes dramatizing historic racism. In 2016, he and producer and New York City pastor Dimas Salaberrios flew to Charleston to cast their vision for a film. When they arrived at popular local restaurant Sticky Fingers Ribhouse, 20 representatives from all nine families showed up.

“We wanted to make sure we came to their turf and on their terms,” said Ivie. “We told them two things. First, we as producers don’t want to take any money. Second, and even more importantly, we want the world to know where God was in all of this.

“That was the turning point,” adds the filmmaker, whose previous film The Drop Box also explored themes of faith, human dignity, and social justice. “Because there were certainly not a lot of Hollywood types or media in general who were saying that to them about this story.”

While fully exploring the “God element” might have turned off some potential filmmakers, some viewers of the documentary’s trailer criticized the film for including excerpts from President Barack Obama’s address at the memorial service for the late pastor and former state senator Clementa Pinckney. There, after delivering a eulogy for his friend, the former president broke into song, leading the tearfully exultant crowd in several verses of “Amazing Grace.”

“A lot of people don’t like President Obama,” said Ivie. “Many have told me they can’t watch the movie because he is in it. Yet this is the families’ own story, and we tell it as it actually happened.

“That powerful moment, when I believe God takes over, is the heart of the film.”

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Source: Christianity Today