Director: Brian Ivie
Runtime: 80 minutes
Elton John once told us that sorry seems to be the hardest word. Here’s a phrase that might be harder: I forgive you.
We live in a culture where forgiveness is in short supply. We tabulate our grievances and hoard our slights. We cry out for justice and scream for vengeance—and often, we’re wholly justified in doing so.
And that’s what makes what we see in the new documentary Emanuel so remarkable.
The film, helmed by Drop Box director Brian Ivie, takes us to Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church circa 2015. Through a variety of congregants and experts, we learn how important free-standing churches were to blacks following the Civil War — “that space where the black community had a sense of ownership,” according to megachurch pastor A.R. Bernard. Emanuel, located in the heart of the old Confederacy and in a city where the legacy of segregation and discrimination still lingers, was an especially important pillar in Charleston’s African-American community. Clem Pinckney, Emanuel’s pastor at the time, was also a state senator.
Perhaps its significance made it a natural target for a 21-year-old white supremacist who wanted to trigger a race war. On June 17, 2015, he walked into the church with a Glock 41, attended a Bible study and then opened fire.
“He sat through the whole Bible study,” survivor Felicia Sanders says in the movie. “And when we closed our eyes to pray, that’s when he lit up the room.”
Sanders was just one of three people who survived the shooting. Nine others—including her aunt and 26-year-old son—died. “[Roof] opened fire on my son,” she says. “I felt every shot… we watched him take his last breath.”
Ivie’s direction is thoughtful and restrained – allowing the survivors and victims’ family members to unspool their stories painfully, intimately. Throughout the doc, we sit and, in a way, grieve with them. When Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the attack, says “Everything I had in the world is gone,” we believe her.
So when we hear Nadine speak to the killer just two days later in court, we can’t help but be stunned by what she says.
“I forgive you,” she says. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you.”
Consider that racial tensions were already sky-high before the Charleston shooting. Michael Brown had been killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, just a year before. And we learned later this attack had been “inspired” by the 2012 killing of black teen Trayvon Martin
But then many of Emanuel’s angry, grief-stricken parishioners piled into court, turned to the killer—the man who gunned down their mothers, their sons, their wives—and forgave him. He never asked for it, but they forgave him all the same.
“A lot of people was angry with what I said,” Nadine tells us in Emanuel, and we hear from them, too. “But what I said I said from the bottom of my heart. It’s like something that just came over me. It’s like, ‘you’re not doing this today. Not today,’ and I knew that was what my mom would want, not to have hatred in my heart.”
Forgiveness is hard. Sometimes, it’s the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do. And few of us will ever have to forgive anything like the congregants of Emanuel did. But in a fractious, angry world, it’s more important than ever. Sometimes, that hard act is the only way to heal.
Emanuel will release in cinemas nationwide June 17 & 19.
Written by Paul Asay