By Sister Hosea Rupprecht | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK • On June 17, 2015, a security camera captured the image of Dylann Roof walking into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He proceeded to participate in a Bible study taking place in the basement.
When the participants bowed their heads and closed their eyes for a final prayer, he pulled a gun and opened fire, killing eight people on the spot and leaving one fatally injured. Five people survived unharmed.
Four years later, documentary filmmaker Brian Ivie, together with executive producers Viola Davis and Stephen Curry, bring us “Emanuel” (Arbella), a movie that celebrates the lives of the “Charleston Nine,” as they are called, as well as the faith and forgiveness of the survivors and family members. The film will be released to theaters for a special two-night-only run June 17 and 19.
In this moving film, we meet those most affected by the shootings, family members of the victims, and hear their stories. Nadine Collier, daughter of Ethel Lance, tells of the harrowing journey she went through trying to get information about her mom when she learned of the shooting.
Chris Singleton, a pro baseball prospect at the time (drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2017), missed the Bible study that night because he was playing baseball. The Rev. Anthony Thompson, husband of Myra Thompson, talks about the great love present in his marriage. Melvin Graham Jr., brother of Cynthia Hurd, courageously but honestly admits that forgiveness seems out of his reach so far.
Also interviewed are survivors who were there that night. Felicia Sanders watched her son, victim Tywanza Sanders, try to reason with Roof and unsuccessfully protect his great-aunt, Susie Jackson. We hear the chilling 911 call made by Jennifer Pinckney, wife of the pastor of Emanuel AME and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was in her husband’s office when the shooting started.
A bit of history sets the stage. In the 1800s, Charleston was the premier slave port, receiving 40 percent of the enslaved who came to our shores. Worship was the only opportunity enslaved people had to express themselves out of the control of whites.
Emanuel AME, sometimes called “Mother Emanuel,” was the first free-standing black church in the South. As an anti-slavery church, it was burned down after Denmark Vesey, one of the congregation’s founders, was implicated in planning a revolt by the enslaved. Rebuilt right after the Civil War, it was destroyed in an 1886 earthquake. The current church was built in 1891.
The makers of “Emanuel” have chosen to focus on the good that has come from the tragedy. In an impromptu move, the judge at Roof’s bond hearing invited family members of the victims to address him directly. The overwhelming sentiment was one of forgiveness and hope that God would have mercy on him for what he did.
Roof’s confession, recorded during a police interview, shows a young man motivated by racial hatred with no remorse for his actions. In stark contrast, the message that the power of love overcomes hate shines through in the people closest to the victims.
The film is rounded off by interviews with some of the reporters who were dealing with their own emotions while striving to maintain professionalism in covering the event and its aftermath. Former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for unity and justice. Some of the most moving footage comes from the eulogy delivered at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral by then-President Barack Obama.
During that memorable speech, he slid into “preacher mode” himself for a bit, acknowledging that from this act of hate and violence came multiple examples of love, faith, forgiveness and grace – showing that “God works in mysterious ways.”
Some may consider it too soon to make a documentary about what was, at the time, the deadliest mass shooting at an American place of worship. While the movie does chronicle the happenings of that tragic day and the days that followed, it ultimately gives hope – hope that our world can be transformed, one act of love at a time, into a place of peace for everyone.
The film contains some disturbing themes. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.