On June 17, 2015, white supremacist terrorist Dylan Roof opened gunfire at Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, murdering nine church members: Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney (41), Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54), Susie Jackson (87), Ethel Lee Lance (70), Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49), Tywanza Sanders (26), Daniel L. Simmons (74), Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) and Myra Thompson (59). The documentary film Emanuel is a look at the tragic massacre that transpired four years ago through the lens of those who survived it.
Drawn to the story because of the faith and hope of the family members in the midst of terror, NBA star Steph Curry produced this documentary through his company Unanimous Media, with Viola Davis and Julius Tennon’s company, JuVee Productions. Directed by Brian Ivie (The Drop Box), Emanuel shares the story using survivors, family members of the victims, church parishioners, police officers, coroners, reporters, activists and pastors who knew of the church and its highly politically active and celebrated leader, Rev. Pinckney.
Beginning with the history of Charleston as a major port for the slave trade with a vile history of racism that still permeates through the state in modern times, Emanuel shows the context in which Roof's violent hatred was created. Even in 2015, it was an environment where Confederate flags hung freely and the aftermath of slavery and segregation lingered long after the civil rights movement. In Emanuel, the 21-year-old killer is seen in photos and videos, parading and posing with guns and these same Confederate flags like they were badges of honor.
Mother Emanuel AME Church, founded in 1816, as a symbol of black pride and independence, became a target for one of America’s most violent hate crimes on June 17th, 2015. Courtesy of Arbella Studios.
Roof chose the site of the attack, affectionately known as Mother Emanuel, because of its rich history, being co-founded in 1816 by Denmark Vesey, and being well known as a pillar in the Black community and American culture.
The film then traces the night of the shooting. For all who attended, it was a regular Bible study night where none of the families of those slain could have imagined that such a tragedy would occur. Pandemonium surrounded the church when after walking in, sitting through 45 minutes of Bible study, and while the members were praying, Roof opened fire and killed nine congregants, even reloading in between, then walked out.
The reporters described the response as being noticeably “different” from other events as they witnessed an enormous police presence and several coroners go into the church, indicating the death count had to be significant. During this time, family members tried but couldn’t see their deceased relatives because of the active crime scene and the shooter still being at-large.
A local newspaper article details the family members’ forgiveness toward self-avowed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, only 48 hours after the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church, which took the lives of nine parishioners. Courtesy of Arbella Studios.
Seeing the response to how Roof was captured two days later and delicately approached by cops--who put away their guns as they approached his car and served him Burger King--brought light to the issues of race still at play, even as the process to find justice unfolded.
“Racism is as American as apple pie,” said Reverend Joseph Darby in the film. The handling of Roof coupled with his statements to the police about what motivated him to kill innocent Black people echoes the truth in that statement. Roof had a desire to “start a race war” after reading about Trayvon Martin’s case, feeling that white Americans were “getting soft.” His beliefs were rooted in hatred that has been proliferated for over 400 years, nonetheless, it was not until he killed nine mothers, sons, sisters, leaders and friends, that the Confederate flag was taken down from South Carolina’s government buildings.
The community response was fast and large. Over 500,000 people of all races gathered in solidarity around Emanuel A.M.E. church the days following the shooting. One of the largest shocks to many was the forgiveness that came from four of the victims’ family members to Roof only two days after he was arrested. Other family members of the victims do not hold the same sentiments.
Though many were outraged at the thought of Black people, who have been oppressed by whites for so long, offering forgiveness to the unrepentant anti-Black killer of their family members, the daughter, husband, mother and son who forgave him said they were inspired by God to do so and gave others hope in the process. President Barack Obama highlighted their courage in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
Reverend Dr. A.R. Bernard, who was interviewed in the film, speaks about the history and legacy of the African American church and the meaning of forgiveness. Courtesy of Arbella Studios.
Dr. A. R. Bernard believed it was an act of courage. "Some people see the families' forgiveness as submission, but that act of forgiveness is the greatest act of love one could ever experience."
Since then, each family has coped with their losses in different ways, many still having a very hard time, but relying on their faith to get them through. Reverend Anthony Thompson has a garden that he dedicated to his late wife Myra Thompson, which he visits regularly. The son of Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Chris Singleton, started a nonprofit, Passion to Forgive, in his mother's memory, has a T-shirt brand, Love Thy Neighbor, and is a motivational speaker. The family of Daniel Simmons also started a nonprofit called Hate Won’t Win Movement to unite people and bridge differences.
Expect to be hurt, angered, and also inspired by those who survived one of the greatest tragedies in American history.
Dylan Roof is currently on death row.
Emanuel is in select theaters on June 17 and 19. Watch the trailer below.
Photo: Family Member Nadine Collier remembers her mother, Ethel Lance, and the legacy of faith and love she left behind. Ethel Lance was a longtime member of Mother Emanuel AME Church. Courtesy of Arbella Studios.