If you walk east on Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina, you can spot the white steeple of Emanuel A.M. E. Church, piercing through the sky, nestled between Meeting and Anson Street. The white crown of the church reminds everyone who walks by of the power of healing and forgiveness encapsulated on holy ground.
Emanuel was founded by Black slaves and frequented by their descendants for over two centuries. In Charleston, the church is known as “Mother Emanuel,” a safe space to gather in communion, where neighboring students at the College of Charleston find solace away from home, where the homeless and downtrodden are encouraged to visit, where community members go to share a meal, laugh, cry and meet with God. Where the devil is shunned and aborted. Where you can find your faith to be restored, or a churning over when it lacks.
If you know anything about Charleston and it’s rich history, Emanuel is bedrock. And anyone, even a white man with a secret, distorted intent to kill, is welcomed with open arms.
Emanuel will be released on June 17 and 19, which simultaneously marks the four-year anniversary where Roof opened fire and his emotional bail hearing. The movie, which was produced by a diverse team of creatives including Stephen Curry, Viola Davis, Mariska Hargitay and Dimas Salaberrios, highlights the significance and history of the Black church in America, while also eulogizing the Charleston 9 in intimate interviews featuring family members of the victims, survivors of the shooting, local journalists, politicians and law enforcement.
But the story of Emanuel does not end with black bodies in bloodshed. Instead, the overarching sentiment from the church body and the city was that forgiveness is the only way to the light. And through forgiveness survivors and those closest to the victims were able to mend the pieces of their shattered hearts.
“There was never a time when my faith wavered, said Rose Simmons in an interview with MadameNoire. Her father Daniel, was one of Roof’s victims.
“I learned from the strength of the families that are willing to release this film at the hour of the bible study, to now be an hour to bring healing to the nation,” Salaberrios said in an interview with MadameNoire.
On the night of June 17, 2015 the holy house filled with the spirit of worship at a weekly bible study tragically morphed into a tomb when Dylann Roof shot nine parishioners to death. Roof was invited in and used the moment to execute his devious plan, shattering many lives in the house of God.
His victims included Clementa C. Pinckney, the church’s pastor, along with Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson, all lost their lives as a result of targeted violence, in a place that served as their celestial home.
It was a crime that shook Charleston and in turn made it impossible to neglect the decaying root of slavery which this nation, and the city of Charleston, were founded on. Emanuel begins with the history of Charleston as one of the largest slave ports that thrived under the Transatlantic slave trade. In turn, slaves and their descendants turned to the Black church as a source of empowerment and pride, making it an easy target for those who intended to wreak havoc, intimidation and death.
And like his predecessors before him, Emanuel shows that Roof sought to destroy and disrupt, but failed.
“The city has been coming together in ways that wasn’t happening in the past. People are talking about racism and attacking it as the wicked thing that it is in that city in ways that have never been matched before,” Salaberrios said.
“I’ve learned in life, as a person of faith, whenever God convicts or feels like he cuts us, he always comes with a great intent to heal,” said Salaberrios.
In a powerful scene that shows Roof’s bail hearing, Rev. Anthony Thompson, whose wife Myra died in the shooting, and Nadine Collier who lost her mother Ethel, speak to Roof directly, extending forgiveness and a call to action that he repent and give his life over to God. Multiple times throughout the film, family of the survivors speak on how they themselves were shocked at their ability to quickly forgive Roof, but trusted that they were being used by God as an example of their faith.
In a beautifully heartbreaking moment in the film, Thompson speaks on the unwavering peace his wife Myra had on the day she was murdered. He recalls her being so unmoved that he was too intimidated to approach her with a hug or kiss before she left the house for the day. It would be the last time he saw her alive. “She was already in her glory, we just didn’t know,” he said.
After an hours-long manhunt, Roof was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina on June 18. Two years later in early 2017, Roof was sentenced to death in federal court after being found guilty of 33 federal charges, including hate crimes. Later that year, he was also was sentenced to nine consecutive life sentences after pleading guilty to state murder charges. He became the first person in U.S. history to face both a federal and state death penalty at the same time.
It is a film that falls in the nuanced category of undoubtedly difficult, but incredibly necessary. And while conversations spur up surrounding whether or not we have the right to opt out of watching Black pain, Emanuel is one that needs to be consumed so that we remember the trials and tribulations that mount up from our past, yet and still in today’s society.
“I think people do themselves a disservice of not seeing the reality because the movie deals with history, it deals with America’s original sin. It deals with this incident. But then this great hope, and those lessons have to be learned by experiencing it,” Salaberrios said.
“There’s a hope and a trust that you have in the Lord and I believe that the audience on June 17 is going to experience that. And if they’ve never believed in the Lord, I believe that after watching Emanuel they will know that there is a supreme being,” Simmons said.