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New documentary on Charleston church shooting explores idea of forgiveness

The film was produced by Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis and NBA star Stephen Curry.

In “Emanuel,” Nadine Collier remembers her mother, Charleston church shooting victim Ethel Lance, and the legacy of faith and love she left behind. (Arbella Studios)

Monday marks four years since nine members of a black church were shot to death by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., setting off a national debate about gun violence. A new documentary about the massacre does not explicitly address gun violence or gun policy, but the powerful stories told by the survivors allow viewers to consider the implications and draw their own conclusions.

Emanuel,” in theaters nationwide Monday and Wednesday, focuses on the victims’ surviving family members, who stood in court just 48 hours after the shooting and offered forgiveness to the gunman, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a self-professed white supremacist. Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis and NBA superstar Stephen Curry served as executive producers of the film, which explores the untold stories after the June 17, 2015, shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In an interview that has been edited for length, documentary director Brian Ivie discussed how “Emanuel” handles the complex tensions around the familiar Christian tradition of forgiveness.

What first drew you to the “Emanuel” project?

I had just gotten married in June 2015, and I was on my honeymoon in New York. I walked into the bedroom, and my wife was crying. She told me nine people had been shot in their Bible study in Charleston.

Then she looked at me and said, “You don’t understand, they’re forgiving him. The family members are forgiving the murderer.” I remember looking at her and saying, “I hope whoever tells that story doesn’t skip that part.” It was that moment for me — encountering this radical, scandalous forgiveness and love for the murderer — that drew me into the story. I wanted the world to know that part of the story.

What was different in this story?

It was that they loved him. It was this moment when (survivor) Felicia Sanders said something to him that really changed me: “We enjoyed you.”

When I go out and talk about the film, I’m not just talking about them forgiving him because they wanted to be emotionally free from him. I’m talking about a kind of love you rarely see. Their love for the shooter was a love that said, “I will bear the full weight of the wrong,” which is the highest kind of love — a love for your enemy.

Stephen Curry and Viola Davis are billed as producers. Can you tell me a little bit about their involvement with the film?

Viola is a champion for justice for the oppressed, for the marginalized, disenfranchised and for those who have no voice, so she comes at this story in that way. But Viola is also from South Carolina and is a Christian woman. So she was deeply moved and broken by the story and wanted to ensure that the world didn’t forget about it. In her heart, she’s an activist.

Stephen, who is known very widely as a Christian athlete and a voice for faith, wanted to align himself with a story that shared his faith in a way that he really felt was compelling and authentic and not typically what you see in a lot of Christian media, which is typically very neatly packaged and doesn’t really feel like real life. This is his first film he’d done in Hollywood, and a way for him to make a statement.

Throughout the interviews, many of the survivors and people you interviewed had talked about the past and present challenges around race issues as well as other injustices that the mass shooting put a spotlight on. Can you talk about these?

We usually say we’ll never forget things like 9/11 or the Boston bombing, or the Holocaust, but many really want to forget about slavery and Jim Crow laws. It’s too close for comfort.

Many white people get defensive whenever racism is brought up and say, “I’m not a racist.” Racism is a systemic problem, burned into our systems of criminal justice.

I think a lot of people in the African American community feel like there’s never going to be any true healing, because there’s never been any true repentance. White privilege is part of a legacy in our country of white supremacy.

You include a few short segments of the shooter, including him entering and exiting the church, being pulled over and later interviewed by police, and at trial. What would you say to individuals who might disapprove of footage of the shooter being used in the documentary?

It’s important for people to know that the families were the first people to see the film. The movie you’ve seen is the movie they saw way before any other audiences. We were able to go through a process of accountability so they felt personally like this was the way the story should be told, and they all loved and blessed the movie.

It’s the same reason people, when they make war movies, have to show the carnage, because that’s part of honoring the suffering that people went through and showing that evil itself. I wanted to expose the problem. It’s what life is actually like. You see a lot of good, you see a lot of bad. There is a deep dichotomy, a deep duplicity in the human condition.

What do you hope that viewers will take away from the response of Mother Emanuel AME?

There is a sense that God is present and that he has also promised that there will be a day when there will be perfect justice and that he will wipe away every tear and that he will bring to pass the kind of world and kingdom where we won’t have to have security guards at our doors. We won’t have to frisk people as we hug them in our church services.

What do you think might be some ways people of faith can address gun violence?

Something has to change. For the film, there wasn’t enough surface area to deal with that issue head on, because it would have taken over the movie entirely. There are a lot of key nonprofits that I follow like March for Our Lives. People like Toms Shoes is leveraging his privilege and influence to try to end gun violence and try to lobby for that. I recommend connecting with organizations that are doing it and are close to the issue.

How can churches balance being welcoming with safety concerns?

Many of the family members [at Emanuel] would say they would still welcome anybody. That is a mind-bending idea. But that church also has more security.

Some people say they want to see changes in the world of mental illness and mental health. They want to see changes in gun laws, minimum age restrictions and background checks. But I think they would still say, “We want anybody to be welcome here.”

Jamie D. Aten, PhD, is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College in Illinois. His books include “A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience” (Templeton Press, January 2019). He is a founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition.