Almost 60 percent of Americans in 2019 think United States race relations are bad. More than 140 mass shootings occurred in the U.S. from January-May 2019 alone. In “Emanuel,” the award-winning documentary executive produced by NBA star Stephen Curry, those solemn realities are confronted — and then turned on their heads — thanks to the raw power of one true story that encompassed them both.
On June 17th, 2015 a man walked into a South Carolina church and killed 9 people. Today, 4 years later, we’ll tell the story of the victims and survivors in theaters for the first time. Visit https://t.co/BJAeJGEzrb to find a theater near you. pic.twitter.com/G0P6wqyhiT
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) June 17, 2019
Directed by Brian Ivie (“The Drop Box”), the movie recounts the 2015 shooting by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black South Carolinians during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Fueled by interviews with survivors and family members of the victims, “Emanuel” tackles everything from the racial history of Charleston to the headlining response of the community — which immediately and repeatedly extended forgiveness to the shooter.
The documentary was released through Fathom Events on June 17, the fourth anniversary of the shooting. It spent just two days in theaters nationwide, designed to be seen in groups and incite local discussion.
But with all it packs into 75 minutes, “Emanuel” deserves a wider audience. It is respectful, yet jarring. It is timely, yet historic. It is heartbreaking, yet beautiful. It is required viewing for today’s America.
Ivie and Curry, whose Unanimous Media joined the project alongside Academy Award-winning actor Viola Davis in late 2018, have been clear that they ultimately intend “Emanuel” to portray the truth and power they find in Jesus Christ. But the film works so well mostly because it’s the furthest thing from cliche Christian media.
It does not hide from issues that have long tormented America, the nationwide church included. It acknowledges that these issues have implications today. Perhaps the most arresting piece of the entire documentary is a midway montage of Charleston’s thick, heavy and emotionally overwhelming track record of racial tensions, punctuated with black-and-white photos of celebrated lynchings and cell-phone footage of the 2015 Walter Scott police shooting — scenes so painfully tear-jerking precisely because they are not crafted for a movie but taken straight from real life.
“Emanuel” is a film centered on forgiveness. But at certain points, it practically and effectively urges the audience to relate more to those who’d rather riot than write off another injustice. And that’s what makes it so stirring and so important. The story tells of people tapping into a greater power to overcome tragedy, but it makes sure not to undersell the tragedy.
When it comes time to highlight the families’ inexplicably forgiving response to the shooting at the heart of the story, “Emanuel” is, again, not delusional, including testimonies of those who either have yet to forgive Roof or would’ve preferred protests over peace. Most of all, however, it is awe-inspiring, offering genuine accounts of those who opted to love their families’ killer rather than hate him. The comparisons between such forgiveness and that of Jesus, the community’s comforter, are far from preachy, instead quietly inviting the audience to consider how true, meaningful forgiveness would even exist outside the signature act of Christ on the cross.
If “Emanuel” has a flaw, it’s that it is not long enough. By the time the credits roll alongside dedications to each of the shooting’s nine victims, it feels as if we are just getting comfortable with those who have told their story, just prying the lid off even bigger conversations. For the introductions of both, however, we should very much be grateful.
“Emanuel” is scheduled to release on DVD, Amazon and other streaming services Sept. 3.