The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Like ‘Green Book,’ the new Charleston church shooting documentary is troubling

Police tape surrounds the parking lot behind the AME Emanuel Church as FBI forensic experts work the crime scene in Charleston, S.C., on June 19, 2015. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The new documentary “Emanuel” falls into a similar trap as Peter Farrelly’s 2018 Oscar-winning “Green Book,” aiming to achieve on film the age-old American Dream wish of racial harmony but instead showing naivete about black life and loss in the United States.

Like “Green Book,” “Emanuel” follows an all-too-banal narrative that affirms white faith in the inherent goodness of the American experience even as it sets out to valorize black faith by its limitless capacity to forgive injustices. Ironically, this logic of African Americans’ extraordinary capacity to forgive defies the trust many white Americans have in the essential goodness of this nation as the hope of black Americans’ ongoing forgiving presumes black Americans’ ongoing injury and offense.

With the well-intended backing of NBA star Stephen Curry and high-profile actress Viola Davis, the “Emanuel” documentary had a limited release this week on the fourth anniversary of the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

New documentary on Charleston church shooting explores idea of forgiveness

The Charleston shooting was neither an isolated episode nor a historical aberration but an experience of terror endemic to black Americans for over four centuries. Convicted shooter Dylann Roof is a known quantity. Though the film does not balk at representing the difficulties of some who will not or cannot be released from their indignation — to the credit of the filmmaker Brian Ivie — the documentary mostly suggests those who struggle to forgive are failing as Christians. Melvin Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was killed by Roof, is clearly pitied in Ivie’s documentary, but one could scarcely say he is an exemplar of the piety “Emanuel” believes in so fiercely. He is defiant; he has not forgiven his sister’s shooter.

By film’s end, it is clear what Ivie’s hope is: The faithful ought to pray for those who struggle to forgive, who in turn should promptly give up their fury and surrender to forgiveness. The glorification of this sort of forgiveness, so blatantly accentuated in this film, insults and invalidates the righteous anger victims of racial violence ought to be extended the grace to feel. Charleston didn’t burn, God was present.

Forgiving is not a simple process that Christians easily achieve. The struggle to forgive, in fact, may be the best index of just how authentic one’s forgiveness is. Even Jesus wrestled with the magnitude of the sacrifice he was required to make for forgiveness to be real.

Unfortunately, this demanding labor to arrive at forgiveness does not seem to be highly valued in “Emanuel.” Although not entirely absent from screen, those like Graham who were not persuaded to join others in releasing Roof from their racial rage, are not this film’s models of reconciliation and racial progress. Those able to forgive Roof so soon are. The film ends celebrating what it intended all along: black suffering and a racial sentimentalism. As a result of all of this, the theology of forgiveness informing “Emanuel” is left profoundly wanting.

The heroes of “Emanuel” are not just those who rid themselves of the weight of their grief by forgiving the sinner. The heroes are equally those faithful survivors of the Charleston massacre courageous enough to lay bare their rage before Ivie’s cameras, demanding a more honest reckoning with black rage than “Emanuel” is prepared for. The discontent of local activists in Charleston who have long raised their voices against racial injustice in the city is not overlooked so much as allowed to fade into the background, dissolving as quietly as it does quickly.

Perhaps, the survivors in Charleston who refused to too swiftly pardon the murderer appear to know what those quick to praise the forgiving ones do not understand: Forgiveness untethered from justice sanctions the status quo responsible for producing Roof. The forgiveness exalted in “Emanuel” runs the risk of getting entangled in that version that is invented to absolve white Christianity of culpability in the nation’s sins against black people.

Emanuel risks encouraging a kind of thin forgiveness, forgiveness divorced from any Scriptural notion of repentance and justice. Thin forgiveness will not dismantle the lies that produced Roof’s — or anybody’s — white supremacy.

Perhaps what is most troubling about “Emanuel” is that it all but demands black forgiveness of white racist violence. Without this demand on black viewers, it is unlikely a film about Charleston’s terrorized black lives would be made. White America would have little interest in it. It is the sentimental and therapeutic appeal of black forgiveness that makes the film winning to so many.

When 11 people were killed in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, none of the accounts we saw from the community included forgiveness for the offender. When asked, one rabbi stated that it was too complicated and the wounds too fresh to talk about forgiveness.

Not so with black lives in “Emanuel,” as some family members offered forgiveness in court 48 hours after the massacre, as the film shows. Black forgiveness is portrayed as urgent, a national emergency. Black forgiveness is a cultural expectation required to free white America to continue living in its post-racial dreamworld, which is why “Emanuel” pays little attention to Roof and the politics of hate, race, Nazism and Christian exceptionalism that produced him. A real confrontation with his history, and the anti-black hate that produced him, might make black forgiveness seem irrational.

“Emanuel” tells a half story, then. The rest is to be uncovered in Roof’s hometown of Columbia, S.C., in his family, among his friends, online and in the history of white supremacy in modern America. All Americans must confront these threats to the nation. Toward these threats, perhaps we have all been a little too forgiving.

Maurice Wallace is associate professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Tony Tian-Ren Lin is a research scholar at the University of Virginia. Wallace and Lin are also ordained clergy.