It’s been four years since white supremacist and terrorist Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers during a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Handling the new documentary revisiting the events was a challenge that left me torn.
Emanuel was produced by NBA star Stephen Curry and Oscar-winner Viola Davis and will have a national release on June 17 and 19. The film is less about the perpetrator and more about survivors, as it should be. One by one, the film speaks to the family of the victims, rehashing the details of the day.
The film also shows the significance of the Emanuel church, established in 1816, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, which made it a target for Roof. He wanted something that symbolized strength in the black community.
On the day of the shooting, Roof attended the Bible study gathering. He pulled out a gun from a fanny pack and opened fire. More haunting than hearing the accounts of the victim’s families are the accounts of the people who were inside.
Felicia Sanders, mother of victim Tywanza Sanders, tells of hiding under a table with her grandniece pretending to be dead to avoid being shot. Her son walked to Roof and told him he didn’t have to do this. Roof responded that he must before shooting the 26-year-old.
Another survivor, Polly Sheppard, says that while hiding, Roof approached her and asked, “Did I shoot you yet?” After she told him, “No,” he responded, “I’ll let you live so you can tell the everyone what happened.”
After the in-depth details from the families telling stories of when they last saw their loved ones, the film goes into the capture of Roof and the court hearing.
This is where the intended messaging of the film lies. During his bond hearing, the judge opened the floor for the relatives of the victims to speak their minds. One by one, they offered forgiveness.
This became the crux of the film as news footage showed how the nation responded to the forgiveness of the victim’s relatives. Some moments in the narrative felt somewhat heavy-handed, failing to give equal voice to the people out there that weren’t so forgiving. And not shown at all in the film is Roof’s response to all of the forgiveness, when he told jurors he still “felt he had to do it.” These omissions sometimes make Emanuel feel like a promo for a Christian organization rather than a thorough documentary.
This is the part of the documentary that leaves me torn. It’s less about what’s said and more about what wasn’t said. We see the footage of the Confederate flag eventually coming down in Columbia as a direct result of this. But even though this is a direct result, we must also remember that despite Gov. Nikki Haley pushing to the take the flag down after the shooting, not even a year prior, in a debate with Democratic opponent Vincent Sheheen, she claimed, “I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Conversations or not, some organizations did steer clear because of the flag — the NCAA refused to host championship tournament games in Columbia for years due to the flag. This year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament landed in town. Boosted by the hype of Zion Williamson and Duke taking part in the games here, the city enjoyed the financial benefits of hosting the event.
Moments like this are bittersweet. I can’t help thinking about how much money the city was deprived of all the years the flag was here.
Just removing the flag isn’t enough, and for me, the documentary fell victim to this circumstance — it’s hard to be satisfied with this movie when there’s more that needs to be done. The flag’s removal was galvanized by the the Emanuel murders.
There should be something on the State House grounds acknowledging why the flag was taken down with the following names: Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman, Myra Thompson. Let’s see if we can get that done.
Where: Spotlight Theaters 8, 201 Columbia Mall Rd.
When: Monday, June 17, 6:30 p.m. (forum discussion); 7:30 p,n. (screening)