The darkness and light of ‘Emanuel’
By; Bob Sloan
As the lights dimmed in the Regal Cinemas Swamp Fox 14 theatre just after 7 p.m. on June 17, what played out on the huge movie screen was the retelling and reliving of one our state’s darkest moments, which in turn produced one of its proudest.
The showing of the new documentary, “Emanuel,” marked the four-year anniversary of the tragedy that occurred in the holy sanctuary of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Myself and surely most, if not all, of the moviegoers in the theatre were all too aware of the significance of the moment. We came to see the story told again, this time in accounts rivetingly detailed by the survivors and those directly involved.
A little more than an hour later, we filed out of the theatre emotionally drained by the powerful film.
I often complain about the high cost of movie admission. The hard-earned $15 I handed over at the box office to see ‘Emanuel’ was so very worth it.
I was surprised that the theatre was only three-quarters full. Considering the film’s limited release - shown in theatres across the nation only on June 17 and 19 – a sold-out crowd seemed certain. I later found out that the movie was shown in two theatres and both were nearly full.
In emotional and heart-wrenching detail, survivors and family members of the nine people who were killed - the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson – recounted what happened that night and the days that followed, including what led to the startling statements of forgiveness made in court.
One thing I learned from ‘Emanuel’ was that the statements of forgiveness to the 21-year-old gunman, Dylann Roof, were made less than 48 hours after the shootings at the bond hearing. It is unheard of for a judge to allow victims to address the suspect at such a hearing. The judge was moved to make such a decision. Those who spoke were unprepared for such a moment and simply spoke from their hearts.
“Emanuel’ was directed by Brian Ivie. Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, a native of St. Matthews, and NBA basketball star Stephen Curry served as executive producers. Mariska Hargitay, of “Law & Order SVU” fame, served as a co-producer. All four have pledged to share 100 percent of their profits with the families of the vicitims, who also were compensated for their participation in the movie. The film hits close to home, too close, for we South Carolinians.
The film reveals the Palmetto State’s dark past – slavery, segregation and racism - before detailing the dark and horrific events that took place in the big church with the white facade and towering steeple on Calhoun Street.
A darkness envelops the film as the first-hand accounts are told. A transformation takes place, however as the lights of forgiveness and unity provide much-needed hope.
In hindsight, it is amazing to see the unifying spirit love and compassion that was born of that dark and evil moment. As Chris Singleton, whose mother, Sharonda, was killed that night, stated in the days following the tragedy: “Love is stronger than hate.”
For me, there was no escaping the fact that the film dealt directly with conflict: The spiritual conflict between darkness and light and the racial conflict between dark skin and white.
As I left the theatre, I pondered these questions: Could the Florence community withstand such a horrible moment? Would the powers-that-be handle the situation as well? Would the community-at-large respond in the same manner?
And then I thought back to last October. White gunman opens fire and shoots seven. Two black officers are killed. The immediate outpouring of support from leaders and the community was nothing short of astounding. To this day, the “Florence 7” are still recognized and honored.
The community chose not play the race card, and thank God for that.
But what about forgiveness? Is it possible that the families and friends could find it in their hearts to forgive Fred Hopkins, who faces two counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder in connection with the shooting? Could the same forgiveness that was extended to Dylann Roof be extended to Hopkins?
Maybe some already have. Then again, maybe not. That’s something each will have to come to terms with in their own time.
What about the community? Can it forgive?
These are really tough questions. If anyone has the ability to shed at least some light on the subject, it would be Polly Daniel Shepherd. Shepherd, a native of Florence who will be in town to speak Thursday at the Waters Building on Dargan Street, made the call to 911 from Mother Emanuel. She looked in the eyes of the 21-year-old gunman. She spoke to him. She has said she forgives him. She said she wanted him to live so that he might repent.
At some time in the not too distant future, I expect ‘Emanuel’ will show up on pay-per-view or movie streaming services. I encourage everyone to take the time to watch it. There is a powerful lesson in forgiveness to be learned.