WASHINGTON — In one of the most powerful scenes of the new documentary Emanuel, Felicia Sanders described watching her son Tywanza, one of nine murdered on June 17, 2015 by Dylann Roof, take his last breath in the basement of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Emanuel is the first film produced, in part, by Steph Curry’s fledgling company, Unanimous Media. Hundreds, including many students, screened the film — through tears and gasps — Wednesday night at Howard University and listened to the NBA star explain afterward why he chose this story as his first foray into filmmaking.
Among countless examples of senseless violence and racism, Curry said he wanted to examine this particular story because he was drawn to and inspired by the message of hope and forgiveness that emerged from the Charleston shooting.
In the film, Felicia recounts, in agonizing detail, her 26-year-old son’s final moments: How Tywanza Sanders first tried to reason with Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist armed with a semiautomatic handgun. Tywanza told him he didn’t have to do this, that “we mean you no harm.”
It didn’t stop Roof. Felicia said she wanted to reach out and hold him, but she couldn’t move. She described how she had her 11-year-old granddaughter muzzled so tightly against her ribs she thought she suffocated her as they hid, both pretending to be dead.
Afterward in Howard’s Cramton Auditorium where the film was screened, Curry spoke about how religion allowed the victims and their families to move forward from the “truly heartbreaking” events.
“Faith and forgiveness permeated the families’ response to this tragedy,” he said. “For me specifically, it’s so hard to try to put yourself in their shoes and to empathize with what they’re going through, but it’s so inspiring the way they handled it. … They chose forgiveness, they chose faith and they chose to support each other and the community coming around. And so that alone speaks volumes for humanity and the hope for humanity.”
Steph Curry discusses the film “Emanuel” with the New York Times’ Lauretta Charlton, Unanimous Media CEO Jeron Smith and the film’s director, Brian Ivie at Howard University.
The film was produced by Unanimous Media — the name is a nod to the Golden State Warriors point guard’s 2016 season when he became the first player to earn all 131 NBA MVP votes. Curry follows several athletes (most notably LeBron James) with Hollywood aspirations but has, with the very first project, signaled a desire to stretch far beyond the world of sports.
Unanimous Media partnered with Viola Davis’ JuVee Productions for the project.
Emanuel focuses on a select few family members of the victims, presenting facts and news reports between their retellings of endearing memories, along with how they experienced the night and aftermath of the mass shooting. It also contextualizes the events in history, from Charleston’s extensive role in the slave trade to the church, which was founded in the early 1800s, symbolizing freedom and empowerment — and therefore always being a target for attacks in the name of racism.
It relies on old clips of Lester Holt, Jon Stewart and President Barack Obama to move the narrative forward but the film is strongest — and most difficult to watch — when it introduces the people whose lives were shattered that night.
Nadine Collier is shown baking a sweet potato pie as she gently speaks about how her mother, Ethel Lance, would put hot potatoes in her and her siblings’ clothes to keep them warm on winter walks to school. Later, she shares the heartbreaking turmoil of waiting for the coroner to tell her that her mother was murdered.
“What hurt the most is I didn’t get a chance to see her,” Nadine said. “(The coroner) didn’t let me see my momma, and the last time I saw her she was in the casket.”
From the film screening at Howard University.
In the film, Rev. Anthony Thompson wanders through his wife’s garden, recalling how happy and peaceful Myra Thompson seemed in the moments before she left for the church that night, not realizing until later that it was because “God already had her,” and he just didn’t know it yet.
Their stories are separated by horrifying images of Roof practicing with his gun and proudly posing with the confederate flag. In videos of him walking into the church, confessing to his crimes and appearing in court, his expressionless face and remorseless remarks continually reinforce that this tragedy was born out of hate.
The audience at Howard was actively engaged with the film, quietly sniffling and wiping away tears after each story while also enthusiastically clapping when Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, asserted that a black man wouldn’t have survived the arrest the way Roof did.
Curry, in the discussion afterward, said he particularly identified with Chris Singleton, now a minor league player in the Chicago Cubs organization, who might have been a victim at the Bible study if not for a game that night. Singleton had been writing the Bible verse Proverbs 24:10 — “If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.” — on his wrist all season, and in the film, he discusses how he assumed the verse was speaking to him because of baseball. But when his mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was gunned down at Emanuel AME, he said he understood the real reason God gave him those words.
Curry was moved by the inspiration Singleton found through something related to his faith previously in his life and how he redirects it toward healing after his mother’s death.
Cubs minor leaguer Chris Singleton poses with a painting of his mother in September 2017 in Charleston. (Jeff Blake USA TODAY Sports Images)
“In the face of adversity, in the face of tragedy, how can I get through it?” Curry said. “I try to picture myself, like, would I have the awareness to respond that way? Would I have the maturity and the courage and the strength to say, ‘This isn’t going to defeat me’?”
What Collier, Thompson and Singleton all have in common was their readiness to forgive Roof.
“You took something very precious away from me,” Collier said to Roof in court two days after the shooting. “I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul.”
Roof was convicted of 33 federal counts in December 2016 and the following month was sentenced to death.
During the discussion after the film, Curry, director Brian Ivie and Unanimous Media CEO Jeron Smith, a Howard alumnus, agreed they believe in finding alternatives to the death penalty. And each of their explanations were met with applause from the audience.
President Barack Obama sings “Amazing Grace” during services honoring Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church. This moment was included in the “Emanuel” documentary. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
“In terms of what I believe in humanity and the redeeming qualities of my Lord and savior and what that means for somebody who would do the worst of the worst, nothing is impossible for them,” Curry explained. “So I think that can live out through not putting somebody to death.”
Emanuel will be released in select theaters nationwide on June 17, the four-year anniversary of the shooting. Part of the reasoning for releasing it on that date “is to say that (Roof) lost” his attempt to spark a race war, Ivie said.
“The verse I come back to is 1 Corinthians 13:13: ‘These three remain: faith, hope and love,’” Curry said.
“In the midst of grief, tragedy of that magnitude, these families found that, and that speaks for itself in terms of how we as humanity — no matter what race you are or where you come from — we can find that at the root of these tough conversations that we’re having, we can continue to progress.”