'Emanuel' is an Unrelenting, Must-See Documentary on the Charleston Shooting

Brian Ivie's film is a humanizing look at the pain and love of a community that survived the unimaginable.

In the past few years, a campaign has sprung up across social media, one that hopes to elevate victims and survivors of mass violence without making their attacker famous. To an extent, the campaign has worked, but not before “Dylann Roof” became shorthand for every dangerous young racist in America.

Emanuel, an endlessly generous gift of a documentary directed by Brian Ivie (The Drop Box) and produced by NBA star Steph Curry and actress Viola Davis, remedies that problem.

Ivie focuses his energies on the city of Charleston, South Carolina, and its heart, the mostly African-American and religious community members who are linked through tragic circumstance to the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The result, a series of testimonies infused with raw power and unexpected warmth, is stunning.

Not since Bowling For Columbine has a movie portrayed the blow-by-blow retelling of a shooting so powerfully through language. Michael Moore’s documentary fuses together 911 calls from Columbine High School over grainy security camera footage in a sequence that feels endless, but Ivie chooses to linger on the evening of June 17, 2015, even longer.

His focus, which is visually demarcated with the names of five interview subjects — Nadine, Anthony, Felicia, Polly, and Chris — seems to be on the varied points-of-view with which the night is remembered, the meaning that survivors and loved ones either chose to construct or failed to find in the wake of Roof’s savagery. Each person recounts the worst night of their lives, revealing gut-wrenching details, but none of these scenes feel exploitative. There is catharsis in these scenes, and maybe even a lesson to be learned.

“Racism is as American as apple pie,” Reverend Joseph Darby says at one point. Local historians explain, alongside striking reenactment footage, that Charleston was a slave port and South Carolina was the only one of the 13 colonies that held a majority Black population. One person calls it a “Confederate Disneyland,” while another says that Roof was “scared of Black courage.”

The legacy of the Christian church and its looming steeple is also explored, and a third act positions selfless love as the natural enemy of race-based violence. Ivie makes poetry out of every visually arresting detail without ever romanticizing the tragedy at hand, leaving his subjects to piece together meaning instead.

Faith as an abstract is difficult to convey on screen, but Emanuel dutifully tackles the tough and complicated theme of religion, especially Christian forgiveness, head-on. While some of those left behind have forgiven Roof (publicly, at a bond hearing just two days after the shooting), others can’t imagine ever moving past their anger and hurt.

Emanuel expands the limits of the heart and spirit by juxtaposing the worst crime imaginable with equally mind-blowing acts of kindness, or as Felicia puts it, “The most powerful love in the face of the most powerful hate.”

Rest assured, Emanuel pulls back from full-blown sermon territory to evaluate the pitfalls of public forgiveness, which other commentators say oversimplified tragedy and stunted any potential for activist organization.

Emanuel is unrelenting, challenging, and a must-see. It will break your heart so bad that you don’t know how it could possibly be put back together, and then, like a miracle, it will do just that.

Brian Tetsuro Ivie: Award Winning Director of Emanuel and The Drop Box, Screenwriter, and Author

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