MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★
Release year: 2019
Genre: Documentary Director: Brian Ivie
Releasing on DVD this week (Oct 15) after its brief theatrical run in June, Brian Ivie’s documentary Emanuel comes four years after the horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina at the Emanuel AME Church which left nine people dead. Photographed with hazy soft focus and in wide aspect ratio, Emanuel is fairly straightforward and conventional in its semi-chronological retelling of those events from June 2015. And that is perhaps its greatest difficulty: how does one effectively share a story that both demands to be told in honor of the lives lost (and the loved ones who remained alive) while neither moralizing nor didactically politicizing the issues behind the act of violence, namely racism and hatred? It’s especially difficult when that story is so familiar, having been saturated with media coverage. In short, Emanuel opts to be more of an unadorned tribute than an in-depth trial, an affecting memorial of tragically familiar events without necessarily exploring their deeper causes or effects beyond skimming the surface.
Emanuel‘s strengths lie in the stories of individuals who lost loved ones: Nadine Collier, Rev. Anthony Thompson, Felicia Sanders, Polly Sheppard, and Chris Singleton. The film begins with Nadine as she prepares pies in her kitchen, setting the tone for an intimate and conversational vibe. But as the film progresses, it takes certain thematic and aesthetic leaps and risks which stray from this original dialogical atmosphere; it works best when it returns to Nadine or Anthony. Beyond these survivors, Emanuel pieces its story together via journalists and media coverage, as well as talking-head interviews with a wide variety of figures: politicians, police chiefs, activities, historians, ministers, and a host of others. Sometimes there are so many perspectives that it becomes difficult to find an emotional foothold beyond the tragedy of it all. Other portions, such as a reenactment of a slave fleeing from white captors on Charleston’s river banks, feel too theatrical or forced. I also felt that too much attention was given to murderer Dylann Roof and his personal photos and home footage—I did not need to see his post-arrest interview with the police as they sit around a conference table with Burger King bags. Why Emanuel gives Roof more attention and running time than murdered AME pastor Clementa C. Pickney feels inappropriate for a film which seems to aim at honoring the victims, not the killer.
In this, the remarkable and affecting aspects of Emanuel are not due to its formal prowess or directorial vision, but for its emotionally heavy real-life content, both in the terrible tragedy and the miraculous forgiveness offered to Roof by some of the survivors. Emanuel clearly wants to hold up such forgiveness as laudable and hopeful, but in doing so it limits its interrogation of how and why such forgiveness is so powerful. This forgiveness is rooted directly in Christianity and the goodness of the gospel of Jesus. One of those interviewed near the end of the film observes that Christ’s words on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” is perhaps the most powerful act of love—the forgiveness of oppressors who do harm out of ignorance is an act of freedom and grace. And while I wholeheartedly agree with this gospel truth, what is difficult for me to parse is whether or not Emanuel in its filmic depiction of such grace has adequately grasped the theological and moral complexity, not to mention the political and emotional ramifications. Still, it’s hard not to get choked up when Nadine shares about her mother, or feel goosebumps when President Obama begins to sing “Amazing Grace” at the eulogy for the victims. And that’s what makes Emanuel worth seeing: it’s a good, if simple, reminder that grace truly is amazing, especially when we’ve walked in the shadow of death. One of the survivors shares that her Bible is still stained pink with the blood of those who died around her. Yet she continues to cling to it and carry it with her; for her it contains the Word of Life which has conquered death and offers us eternal life. Amen.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5948944/