This isn’t your ordinary feature documentary. This is a film about an act of horrific violence. By a white supremacist. In a historic black church.
It’s about what that violence wrought. It’s about loss and fellowship and anger and faith. And, most of all, it’s about forgiveness.
The 150-minute documentary “Emanuel,” directed by Brian Ivie, will be screened at an invitation-only event at the Gaillard Center on Saturday, June 15, and then publicly at 7 p.m. Monday, June 17, and at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 19, at Azalea Square (Summerville), Charles Towne Square (North Charleston), Palmetto Grande (Mount Pleasant) and the Terrace Theater (James Island). Its executive producers are Stephen Curry and Viola Davis.
Shortly after the shootings at Emanuel AME Church, Ivie approached his colleague Mike Wildt, who had produced a couple of Ivie’s films. The director told Wildt about a remarkable expression of forgiveness in Charleston.
“I had never heard that part, and I think a lot of America hadn’t heard about it,” Wildt said. “I was moved to tears, overwhelmed by how multiple people could forgive.”
The two men knew they had to do something; they had to make a movie.
By early 2016, they had secured some money and arranged to visit Charleston, to attend the one-year memorial event and to conduct as many on-camera interviews as possible. Soon after, they had a short, proof-of-concept film and investors eager to help.
“We raised the funds in under a week,” Wildt said.
The full-length movie they made was carefully filmed.
“The cameras we used, lenses we used, everything was very cinematic,” Wildt said. “We wanted the experience to be cinematic. The city is beautiful and the story, although tragic, has such a beauty to it. We wanted to create an atmosphere where all kinds of people could fit into the room.”
To do so, they consulted with survivors and family members, he said. They interviewed more than 50 people. They remained aware of their outsider status and were careful not to impose their preconceived views on the film, Wildt said.
And though the movie was made from a Christian perspective — both Ivie and Wildt are followers of Jesus — they avoided any explicit religious proselytizing.
“‘Emanuel’ is not Christian film, but a film about a church and Christian ideas,” Wildt said. “We made an intentional effort to make sure it was for all audiences. We went through a lot of test screenings and focus groups to make sure there was no Christian agenda.”
What forgiveness is
The Rev. Anthony Thompson, pastor of Holy Trinity Reform Episcopal Church on Bull Street and husband of the late Myra Thompson, one of the nine victims of the shooting, said he was glad the film keeps the focus on forgiveness.
“They did a wonderful job expressing exactly how the families felt at that time, and where we are now,” he said.
Not everyone was so willing to forgive the perpetrator, he noted. But that moment at the courthouse — when Nadine Collier, daughter of shooting victim Ethel Lance; Bethane Middleton Brown, sister of the Rev. DePayne Middleton; and Anthony Thompson told Dylann Roof that love would defeat hate — was an example of divine intervention, Thompson said.
“Man had nothing to do with it, because it came directly from the heart, and the movie points that out very clearly,” he said.
Of course, he was nervous before seeing the film for the first time (he’s watched it four times, so far).
“Initially, I didn’t know which way it would go,” Thompson said. “I talked about it with Brian Ivey, who had a conversion to the Lord before doing this. He gave me his testimony. I knew he would not dismiss God’s intervention in the whole ordeal.”
The Rev. Kylon Middleton, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church and a close friend of Emanuel’s late pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, said he fears the movie oversimplifies the narrative of forgiveness, and stands as the latest example of a black experience told by whites.
However well-intentioned, a white person’s take on black forgiveness is likely to skew the meaning of such a gesture in a way that appeals to whites, Middleton said.
“The movie ... advances the white narrative of forgiveness,” he said.
But forgiveness, when it comes from black people, often is a form of radical protest, a means of self-preservation, both physical and emotional, and a method of confrontation.
Forgiving a violent perpetrator effectively transfers all responsibility, as well as the moral burden, onto that person, he said.
A documentary about forgiveness isn’t a bad thing, he said. But what’s needed more is a public debate about ongoing injustices against black people and a determination among policymakers to right historical wrongs.
“We’ve not fully, wholly allowed ourselves to have that national conversation,” Middleton said, adding that the entire political system is configured to avoid it.
“This has to be a national movement,” he said. “The civil rights era is not over. It is time to re-energize that.”
Coming to terms
Sharon Risher, daughter of the late Ethel Lee Lance, is associate minister of New Emanuel Congregational Church of Christ in Charlotte and the author of the book “For Such a Time as This: Hope and Forgiveness After the Charleston Massacre.”
Risher said it has taken her a while to come to terms with this notion of forgiveness.
“They did a good job in trying to piece together the story that they wanted to have,” she said of the documentary. “They wanted to show the human part of trying to get through forgiveness and understanding why others were able to forgive kind of instantly. I kind of was not one of those instant people. Being so close to all of the intimate details leaves you wanting more.”
For Christians, forgiveness is “the hallmark of our faith,” she said.
“But ... how do you actually get to that in your whole heart and be authentic? It sounds good, sounds holy, to stay in the spiritual realm, but we know that as humans, we move in and out of that.”
What’s more, black people are subject to a terrible irony: historically, they are the victims of violence and oppression, yet they are expected always to forgive, Risher said. They are the ones who must forgive, whether they want to or not, in order to maintain their sanity.
“My sister Nadine was the first to say ‘I forgive,’” she recalled. “I was, like, what? I was angry about that because I felt like here we go again as black people. Aren’t we tired of saying we forgive? Can’t we be authentic about saying what we really feel?”
But there is a terrible risk involved, Risher noted. If you don’t find a way to forgive and let go, the rage will eat you alive.
“Months later, I realized that God used all of those people in that courtroom to set the tone about how the world and the country was going to receive this,” she said. “Were we going to let this beat us down, or take it in the spirit that God intended?”
Risher has found an uneasy peace now, though the events of June 17, 2015, remain ever present in her mind.
“For me, there is no moving forward,” she said. “You can never move forward from a tragedy like that. It is what it is. There is no moving forward.”