Mass shootings continue to be a shameful stain on contemporary American history. They strike at such a frequent rate that the way they occupy news cycles before losing the public’s short-spanned attention has become appallingly routine. With his somber documentary “Emanuel,” released by Fathom Events in theaters for two nights only (June 17 and 19), director Brian Ivie (“The Drop Box”) aspires to focus on something rare and enduring that unfolded in the aftermath of one such unspeakable tragedy. It was a collective act of defiance that aimed to heal a wounded community.
That community includes a congregation in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, who lost nine — all black lives that vastly mattered — to a gun massacre in their holy house of worship exactly four years ago. Executive produced by Viola Davis and Stephen Curry among others, “Emanuel” turns the nation’s eye on the victims’ loved ones, who appeared in court 48 hours after white supremacist Dylann Roof’s evil acts and faced the hate-filled racist with an unexpected weapon: forgiveness.
The first surviving family member we meet is Nadine Collier, who lost her mother Ethel Lance to the tragedy. She invites us into her kitchen, baking a sweet potato pie, telling fond memories of her childhood that involves her caring mom. Then she takes us through the excruciating sorrow that followed after she learned about her mother’s death. Nadine spent critical hours not knowing what happened; she recalls her information-starved wait in emotionally chilling detail. There is also Rev. Anthony Batiste Thompson, whose wife Myra fell victim to the shooter. Plus we hear from Rose Simmons, whose father was the beloved Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr. of the AME Church, as well as survivors Polly Sheppard — left alive by the shooter to recount the events — and Felicia Sanders, whose brave son tried to reason with the shooter, only to be murdered before his mother’s eyes.
These powerful talking-head interviews, composed, lit and shot tastefully with artistic intent, are peppered with a crowded array of historians, scholars and other experts on the racial history of Charleston. We are told the town was a major port for slave trade back in the pre-Civil War years, responsible for nearly 40% of the country’s slave population. It was no wonder that South Carolina seceded first and later on became America’s “Confederate Disneyland,” an interviewee remarks, reminding the audience that Charleston continues to offer its Southern pride as a prime tourist attraction. After all, the Confederate flag, a symbol of racism, was only removed from state capitol after the 2015 AME Church killings.
Ivie accompanies the abovementioned historical context by occasional dramatic reenactments; a strange creative choice that briefly cheapens his otherwise refined film. Still, this directorial miscalculation doesn’t lessen the impact of Ivie’s overarching message, when the filmmaker returns to his core group and their generous stories of unparalleled humanity. Chris Singleton, a former professional baseball player whose mother Sharonda Coleman Singleton was killed on the day, remembers almost an out-of-body voice that took over him when he forgave Roof. Nadine was similarly moved by a greater power. The filmmaker unpacks these accounts of pardon with care, showing courtroom scenes (some, unbearably painful) as necessary. He lands on something especially powerful when he cuts to President’s Obama’s eulogy during which he spontaneously sang “Amazing Grace” in front of a crowd that shared his hymn and heartache.
A glaring blind spot of “Emanuel” is the long-term, possibly damaging implications of forgiveness: what a seemingly bighearted act might deny scores of justly angry people who don’t share the same mindset. Ivie only briefly gives a voice to activists who prefer to express their rightful fury, acknowledging but not unpacking their historically and politically valid perspective. He similarly makes a fleeting point about police’s over-courteous treatment of Roof and shortcomings of American justice — we see some surveillance footage of a group of officers putting their guns away while approaching Roof’s vehicle and offering him food from Burger King in the interrogation room. The contrast between these scenes and endless stories of police brutality toward unarmed, innocent black men and women registers, but doesn’t get examined.
However naïve, Ivie ends on the exact hopeful note he pursues, respecting those who rise above their grief with clemency, who counter hate with love. Most of all, “Emanuel” demonstrates forgiveness is hard work that requires a divine-level of fortitude. Especially when it comes at direct odds with the ones you hold dear.