Emanuel, a documentary on the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre, begins not at the scene of the tragedy on 17 June 2015, but with the larger reaction to it – Daily Show host Jon Stewart at a loss for words, President Obama presiding over another press briefing for a mass shooting. But the film then jumps ahead in time, to Nadine Collier’s kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina, as she whips steamed yams into sweet potato pie for her church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal. Four years earlier, Collier’s mother, Ethel Lance, was killed when a white supremacist gunman opened fire after Bible study, killing nine black parishioners. The crime was an act of racial hatred so brutal, a violation of a sacred place so inhumane, that it shocked a nation already growing inured to the crushing pattern of mass shootings.
The headlines regenerated days later, when several family members of the victims, including Collier, tearfully forgave the shooter at his bond hearing – a narrative of forgiveness controversially seized upon by the press as a feel-better cover for looking critically at the deep roots of racism in Charleston and beyond. (At the time, the Confederate flag still flew above the South Carolina statehouse in Columbia. Three weeks after the shooting, the then governor, Nikki Haley, ordered it removed and placed in a nearby Confederate museum).
The film Emanuel, produced by the basketball superstar Stephen Curry and Oscar-winning actor Viola Davis, takes the news blare of the tragedy and the intense outside focus on forgiveness into account, then zooms in closely to look at church, community and family: the victims’ relationships to the church, and how they loved. Why the families forgave, or did not, and still have not. The film features at least one representative for each victim, as well as numerous voices speaking to the history and culture of Charleston – journalists, local newscasters, activists, historians and religious community members.
It’s also an unabashedly Christian film, told from the perspective of a director, film-making team and cast deeply invested in their church and the Christian precept of forgiveness. But director Brian Ivie maintains that it holds lessons for a wider audience. “The hope of the film is that it would show who these people are and what they believe, but it will also show how much work we have to do. And I think those things can coexist,” he told the Guardian.
Ivie is perhaps not the most obvious choice to direct a documentary on the shooting at Emanuel. A white man from California, he was on his honeymoon when he received news of the tragedy. “To be honest, I never wanted to make a movie about this,” he said. “I felt like it was the most inappropriate thing to do,” given the media crush to cover the immediate aftermath. His unease was compounded by the intense focus on forgiveness, which “started to Christianize the situation in a way that I know hurt a lot of people and forced a lot of people into an expedited healing process that wasn’t necessarily healthy”.
“For me, as a white American, it certainly didn’t feel like it was my place to go document the story, even to grieve – what role would I serve in that?” Ivie avoided the story for a year, but changed tune when he flew to Charleston to film the first annual memorial service as a gift to AME Emanuel. His producing partner, Dimas Salaberrios, an African American pastor from New York City, connected him with several victims’ family members, which began discussions of a potential film.
People were “rightfully” skeptical at the beginning, said Ivie, but he credited two promises in earning their trust. First, that they would not profit in any way from the film. Second, that they would honor the faith of their loved ones. “Knowing that I shared their faith,” said Ivie, “I think that made them feel comfortable – that I was going to honor the legacy of faith of their families, which was very important to them.”
Ivie, wary of the flattening effect of media coverage of increasingly routine mass shootings, said he worked for the filming process to be collaborative, not extractive. “The first question every documentarian has to ask themselves is: should I make this? Not can I make this,” he said. Those questions formed “a process we went through with the families: do you want this to exist? Is this something that honors you and your loved ones, or not?”
Emanuel also includes many local experts – journalists, local newscasters, historians, a Black Lives Matter activist – to address the city’s thicket of racism both past and present. The racial context of the tragedy, beyond the hate crime itself – Charleston’s history as America’s pre-eminent slave port, the terrorism of lynching in the south, the solace provided by black churches, particularly Emanuel – was crucial to the film. “I wanted it to feel like we were not only humanizing people but also giving them a voice to talk about the pain and injustice and marginalization and disenfranchisement and evil that has been done to African Americans for centuries,” said Ivie. “I felt like that was the only way that the film deserved to exist.”
While the film explicitly discusses racism, Emanuel refrains from specifically addressing gun control. Ivie said he personally supports gun reform and the organization Everytown for Gun Safety, but backed away from politics in the film in deference to the families. “Ultimately, it felt like we were moving away from what the film needed to be for [the families], so that’s why it wasn’t the focal point,” he said.
One of the film’s most moving moments, however, comes again through the presence of Barack Obama, who delivered the eulogy to one of the victims, the Rev Clementa Pinckney. At one point in his speech, the then president pauses, seemingly at a loss of what to do next, how to adequately express this level of pain, or faint possibility of hope. Then he begins to sing Amazing Grace, soon joined by the pastors behind him, then the whole room.
The decision to devote significant time to Obama’s speech has received “a lot of flak”, Ivie said. “I mean, the Christian community is very divided.” But it’s part of the story on the ground, “and I felt like that was a moment that brought the nation together in the right way”.
The final moments of the film, though, belong to the families, each paying tribute to their loved ones lost four years ago at church: Clementa C Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson. Their memories were integral to Davis and Curry’s support of the project, said Ivie. “That was their heart, to make sure the world didn’t forget about these people and why they died – and also why they lived.”