I’ve got something to say.”
That is what a black minister heard God say to him moments before the minister unexpectedly spoke to Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who had murdered the pastor's wife two days prior. At the conclusion of a midweek Bible study, Roof had opened fire as those gathered in the basement of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, bowed their heads in prayer. Nine were killed.
The murders happened on June 17, 2015, and shocked the nation. But what happened on June 19 may have been even more shocking. At a court hearing, with Roof appearing via closed circuit television feed from jail, the judge asked the bereaved families if they had anything to say to the accused. That minister would be among a string of those who looked at Roof and uttered the unfathomable “F” word: forgive.
Those decisions to publicly forgive may have set Charleston, South Carolina, on a different path than places like Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore, Maryland, where racial tensions led to angry protests and riots in 2014 and 2015. That does not mean nothing changed. Within a month of the shooting, the Confederate battle flag—a symbol Roof had adored—was removed from the state capitol grounds. Walmart and Amazon stopped selling items bearing the flag. Thousands marched in a peaceful display of solidarity.
In an era when mass shootings occur with an almost numbing frequency, director Brian Ivie has captured in searing detail the well of pain and faith from whence these particular acts of hate and forgiveness flowed. His documentary Emanuel, slated for release on June 17, provides insights into Charleston’s racial history and the prominent role of Emanuel—what many call “Mother Emanuel”—as the oldest AME congregation in the South. Viewers also hear from those who have not forgiven, as well as those who saw their own agendas thwarted by the dominant narrative of reconciliation which took hold in the aftermath of the shooting.
Thanks to assistance from basketball star Stephen Curry and other celebrities, Ivie had the resources to craft a stunning piece of filmmaking. As in his 2015 documentary The Drop Box, which highlighted a Korean pastor who takes in Seoul's unwanted children, Ivie lets the raw reality of the faithful awe the audience. At a time when “Christian” cinema is dominated by cringeworthy scripts and ham-handed acting, Ivie frames the stories of real people in ways that transcend the subculture.
Ivie does not sweep the religious roots of these responses under a rug, but presents them with powerful frankness. To a world convinced that Christianity is either a spent force or a farce, he showcases undeniably powerful and authentic depictions of faith in action. For a church too often divided along racial lines, Emanuel should prompt some necessary soul-searching.
I watched an advanced screening of Emanuel with an audience of people from a variety of backgrounds. Afterward, it became clear that though we had watched the same film, we had seen different things. A brief shot of a white-gloved honor guard respectfully folding the Confederate flag as it came down one final time was lost on me, but others zeroed in on it. One woman noted the importance of whites moving beyond mere silence on these issues. When whites do not speak, another African-American woman said plaintively, “It wounds us.”
Healing those wounds will require facing unpleasant parts of our history that have been hidden or warped into cause for celebration. I remember my sad surprise upon reading about the 2018 opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It commemorates the victims of lynching, and its companion museum catalogued hundreds of lynching sites, with soil from each location stored in a glass jar. I was shocked to see dirt from Cass County, Texas, where I spent my childhood, featured in a New York Times photograph. When I was growing up, lynchings were never spoken of, at least not within range of my white ears. Later, I learned that Cass County became Davis County in 1861—to honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis—before reverting back in 1871.
Though the capital of the Confederacy eventually moved to Richmond, Jefferson Davis first governed from Montgomery. His residence there is remembered as the First White House of the Confederacy and is maintained “as it appeared in the spring of Southern independence in 1861.” A brass plaque on the steps of the Alabama state capitol marks where Davis took the oath of office.
Not far from that marker is the Foundation for Moral Law, founded in 2002 by Roy Moore—he of 5,000-pound granite Ten Commandments and a famously failed run for the senate. The foundation is located in an 1856 building built by a bank that, as the foundation notes, “generously supported the Confederacy.” In 2010 the building was used to host a celebration of Alabama’s secession, a move that probably came as no surprise to those familiar with Moore’s neo-Confederate ties. If Charleston is, as one African-American describes it in Emanuel, a “Confederate Disneyland,” then Montgomery may be the equivalent of Disneyworld.
But another building near the Alabama capitol is the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a young Martin Luther King, Jr. preached and shepherded the civil rights movement. From Charleston to Montgomery to Cass County, hundreds of southern communities have complex tapestries of racism, violence, and resistance that are rarely discussed in multi-racial company. Emanuel is the story of an extreme conversation between Roof, a white man radicalized with the help of Confederate symbolism, and a black community that responded with faith despite great pain.
But forgiveness is a pathway to healing, not a license to forget. The story of the Emanuel nine and those they left behind is in theaters for two days only, June 17th and 19th. While it should not be the end of our conversations, this film is a powerful start.
John Murdock is an attorney and writer with roots in Texas. He saw Emanuel at a screening sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.