New documentary delves into the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the decision of those involved to embrace forgiveness
Four years ago this week in Charleston, South Carolina, the almost inconceivable happened. Family members of nine churchgoers murdered during a Wednesday evening Bible study forgave the killer. “Emanuel” documents why.
In theaters June 17 and 19 only, the 90-minute documentary recounts the horrors that took place inside — and outside — Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015. Inside, the six minutes of terror are relived, in emotional detail, through survivor interviews. Outside, the centuries of dehumanization that led to the attack are given painful remembrance.
Both leave one in awe at the families' public forgiveness when confronting the man responsible for their loss, particularly when “Emanuel” juxtaposes their stunning act with the stomach-turning stories and images that document Charleston's — and America's — history with slavery.
In one powerful reenactment, “Emanuel” shows the capture, nearly 200 years ago, of Charleston's Denmark Vesey, a prominent churchgoer and former slave. Vesey was executed over claims of conspiring a slave revolt.
That makes it all the more maddening when “Emanuel” shows how such race-based conspiracies and presumptions of guilt are still leading to death. For the nine killed at Emanuel Methodist, it was the shooter's race-war manifesto. For Walter Scott, it was the fatal shot — among the five fired at his back — by a North Charleston police officer, two months prior to the Emanuel massacre.
And yet “Emanuel” manages to evoke great hope in sharing what sustained those affected by the mass shooting. It is the same thing that served as a source of relative peace for slaves amid the evils of their oppression. And it's what “Emanuel” filmmakers hope will curb such acts of terrorism in the future.
“From the beginning, we set a goal of the ‘power of one,'” executive producer Dane Smith said in a phone interview. “To help one person find faith or one person to find their way back to their faith. To give one person the courage to say, ‘That's not okay,'” regarding the “deep and guttural” biases many knowingly or unknowingly hold.
“If we can keep one person from turning to violence,” Smith said, “we will have achieved our goal.”
It's a message Smith wants churches and community groups to share across America, in small towns like Oak Hill, Ohio, where he was born, to big cities like Columbus, where he was raised.
“I hope everyone who sees the film is moved a few degrees and shares that experience with someone else,” he said.
“Emanuel” is a film for all to glimpse the life-threatening power of hate and, as Smith encouraged, to share the life-altering power of love.
The survivors and families of those slain at Emanuel had the courage to do so. We should, too.