The new documentary Emanuel, from Director Brian Ivie, gives us firsthand accounts from survivors who were bowing their heads in prayer in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015 when white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on them. Nine Christians died that day, but their legacies live on thanks to the astounding courage of their loved ones. In Emanuel, we hear straight from the sons, daughters, husbands and wives of the victims as they describe that fateful day - and how they responded to it.
At last month's D.C. premiere of the film, the audience battled both tears and gasps as the survivors told their stories. Nadine Collier offers a lengthy explanation of how she learned her mother had been killed. Felicia Sanders, one of the survivors, painfully reveals how she watched her son Tywanza bleed out on the floor while trying to talk Roof out of his mayhem. Survivor Polly Sheppard recounts how Roof told her he was going to keep her alive so she could "tell the story." It was my first time hearing these accounts, as I'm sure it will be for many other viewers. I don't need to tell you to bring tissues.
The latter half of the documentary, equally powerful, centers on the act of forgiveness. In court, just 48 hours after the massacre at Emanuel AME, a few of the surviving family members faced Roof, told him they forgave him, and wished he would soon "repent" and find God. Their decision to forgive appeared to have helped the city of Charleston heal, or at least prevent the types of riots we witnessed amidst the racial tension in Baltimore and Ferguson, MO.
But not everyone was so quick to forgive. One grieving brother in the film said he doesn't know when or even if he'll ever forgive his sister's murderer. Civil rights activists, too, such as a Black Lives Matter representative who appears in the documentary, argues that the families' decision to forgive Roof was a setback for the movement.
NPR weighed in on the controversy at the time: "In the days that followed the hearing, the mercy demonstrated by the families set the public tone among Charleston's leaders, both black and white. But other black leaders, both in Charleston and without, have taken issue with the rush to forgiveness."
Prominent civil rights activist Millicent Brown said, "I understand the stages of grief and you don't usually jump to forgiveness first."
Chris Singleton, who lost his mom Shardona Coleman-Singleton in the attack and attended Emanuel's D.C. premiere last month, disagrees with the assumption that their forgiveness harmed any movement. After all, he explains, the only thing on the families' minds in those harrowing days was their faith. He couldn't have forgiven his mom's murderer by himself.
"I had help making that choice," he said in a follow up interview with Townhall this week. "God laid that on my heart and put the words in my mouth that day."
Singleton was a professional baseball player for the Chicago Cubs, but, now retired from sports, he spends his time speaking with youth about the tragedy he endured and what he's learned from it. Perhaps if Dylann Roof had his own role model, someone he could talk to, he wouldn't have had so many "cold blooded thoughts," Singleton mused.
"There should've been some leadership" in his life, Singleton said. That's why he speaks to kids of all colors and in all communities, teaching them to love their neighbor no matter their appearance.
"I think everyone needs to hear that message," he said.
I was struck by his quiet strength, but Singleton was quick to credit a lot of his character to his mom.
"She would always correct me a lot," he laughed.
His mother, Shardona, and all nine of the victims are remembered in Emanuel, in theaters for two days only on June 17 and June 19.