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When Chris Singleton needed a spiritual pick-me-up during a long baseball season at Charleston Southern University, he found comfort and reassurance in Proverbs 24:10: “If you faint in the day of adversity your strength is small.” The same day Singleton found that scripture, he played a dominant game. For good luck, he kept the text close by for the rest of the season. This was spring 2015. The full impact these words would have on Singleton did not become apparent until months later, when his mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, died during the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In the aftermath of the shooting, Singleton joined the loved ones of the other victims in expressing forgiveness for the shooter, Dylan Roof. This act of impossible strength forms the spiritual backbone of writer-director Brian Ivie’s moving documentary Emanuel.
DIRECTOR: Brian Ivie
Following the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a community on the edge of falling apart rallies around the loved ones of the victims, who united to offer forgiveness to the shooter.
Emanuel covers a lot of ground in its brief runtime and is divided into three main parts. The movie spends its opening 15 minutes on the history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the city of Charleston. It provides context for the importance of the church and what the attack meant to the community. As an anti-slavery church, Emanuel was the first freestanding black church in the south. Emanuel isn’t just a part of the community, it is the community. As with all Confederate states, racial tension is a constant in South Carolina. Ivie presents this history not to establish Emanuel as a beacon for suffering, but as a symbol of strength. When Emanuel was attacked, the true power of the church and its community was revealed.
Most of the documentary’s middle section focuses on the shooting itself, as told by the family and friends of the victims. It’s tough to watch, as always, to see people describe the brightness the world lost. It will always be difficult to watch these tearful descriptions of loving mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, and friends—as well as the moments that retell the horror that took place. We all know what happened, with Roof entering the church and sitting through a Bible study session before opening fire on the people who had welcomed him in. It’s absolutely bone-chilling to listen to survivor Polly Sheppard describes the events; Roof asked her, “did I shoot you yet?” There is also a moment where a 911 call recording plays over home video footage of Roof brandishing his weapons.
The last third of Emanuel is dedicated to the victims’ loved ones and their reactions after the shooting. There are plenty of interviews with journalists, academics, and politicians to describe the social fallout of the attack, but the real emotional core in Emanuel is centered around the reactions from friends and family. To see such a unified response from the families of Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson, is a testament to the power of their faith. Their individual and collective show of forgiveness left many people befuddled. I was stunned by the reaction when I read about it back in 2015, and I was in awe hearing it again in Emanuel.
As a documentary, Emanuel is fairly run of the mill in its presentation. It’s well produced and counts Viola Davis, Steph Curry, and Mariska Hargitay as executive producers. But this is a story where a flashy or bombastic style would feel inappropriate. All Emanuel needs to do is let its subjects speak, and that’s what Ivie does. At its best, Emanuel is an important historical documentary and moving testament to the power of faith.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.