A survivors’ history that doubles as an elegy for a community rocked by racist terrorism, Brian Ivie’s Emanuel recounts the 2015 mass shooting that killed nine worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Viewers might be more than wary going in: Mass murders are now so commonplace in America that if we commemorated each with a movie, there would be few screens left for anything else. (Even in the subcategory of church-set massacres, a gut-punching Wikipedia article notes that the Emanuel shooting was immediately “surpassed by the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting and the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.”) But both the racial motivations behind the crime and the community’s startling reaction make this tragedy especially worth remembering; when it is shown nationwide on the shooting’s fourth anniversary, June 17 (with an encore on June 19), it will leave few viewers unmoved.
Photographed handsomely by Daniel Stewart, the documentary gathers a very large collection of journalists, historians and political figures for interviews, but gives special attention to a handful of subjects: For some whose relatives were killed in the church, it follows into their daily lives, watching scenes of fishing, cooking or baseball as if to emphasize that life has gone on in the face of hatred. Nadine Lance Collier makes a sweet potato pie before sitting down, with a picture of her mother Ethel pinned to her dress, for the hard work of describing what happened on June 17, 2015. She describes hearing there had been a shooting and rushing to the church, only to spend hours before anyone would confirm that Ethel died at the scene.
Before the beat-by-beat narrative begins, scholars describe the racial history of Charleston, a hub for the slave trade before the Civil War. We’re told that around 40 percent of slaves came through the market here; and, generations later, some feel tourists view the city as “a Confederate Disneyland” where black locals will show deference to white visitors. With the help of well-executed but probably unnecessary reenactment footage, we see how the 19th century roots of the AME church are intertwined with the efforts of people like Denmark Vesey, a free black man who wanted to liberate slaves and lead them to Haiti.
Occasionally, chilling use of existing source material — audio of a 911 call, say, overlapping video of a white youth playing with guns — provides balance to families’ warm memories of those they lost that day. Survivor Felicia Sanders offers a heartbreaking first-hand account, recalling how her son tried to calm the shooter before being gunned down — only to “swim” across the floor in an attempt to help his aunt as he died.
But the film doesn’t linger in this account of horror. It moves quickly through the hunt for and interrogation of the shooter, then arrives at a tense courtroom scene in which he, via a video connection, was forced by a judge to listen as women and men spoke of the nine people he killed. And they forgave him.
Ivie marvels a bit at this response, letting those who said the words reflect — Chris Singleton, who lost his mother Sharonda, says he felt like the words came from someplace outside him — while noting that others were incapable of sharing the sentiment. Briefly, the doc hears from activists who see the embrace of forgiveness as a huge missed opportunity; but these sentiments don’t contribute to the redemptive note Ivie wants to end on. Quickly we’ve moved on to Barack Obama’s deeply affecting eulogy, which matched the mood of a community determined to respond to hatred by celebrating those they had lost and reaffirming the values for which they had been targeted.
Production companies: SDG, Fiction Pictures
Distributor: Fathom Events
Director-screenwriter: Brian Ivie
Producers: Dimas Salaberrios, John Shepherd, Mike Wildt
Executive producers: Stephen Curry, Viola Davis, Erick Peyton, David Segel
Director of photography: Daniel Stewart
Editors: Jonathan Cipiti
Composer: Keith Kenniff