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Film on church shooting focuses on forgiveness, hate

Filmmaker Brian Ivie has a favorite moment in his new film “Emanuel,” a documentary about the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that killed nine people.

During his eulogy for South Carolina State Sen. and Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims, President Barack Obama began singing “Amazing Grace.”

“My favorite moment of Barack Obama’s presidency is when he sang ‘Amazing Grace,’” Ivie said. 

Obama’s singing of that Christian hymn written by a former slave tradee who repented when he found Jesus is part of “Emanuel,” which will be screened in select theaters around the country June 17 and 19.

Ivie says his faith was challenged while he was making the documentary about the mass murder of black parishioners during Bible study by Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist. 

Speaking after a recent screening of his film at the Ray Stark Family Theatre in the George Lucas Building of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, Ivie said he found the answers to his questions in the response to the senseless slaughter at the church known as “Mother Emanuel,” which was founded in 1816 and is the South’s oldest AME church. 

While Roof, who is seen in surveillance and home video footage entering the church, conducting target practice and with Confederate flags, had intended for his carnage to spark a race war, quite the opposite happened. Instead of riots, many (although not all) of the relatives of the slain went to court and publicly offered “forgiveness” to the murderer and went on to oppose the death penalty for him. 

South Carolina also ended official use of the Confederate flag following the shooting.

In forgiving the assassin, family members displayed the moral superiority of the oppressed, with a higher humanity than that of the homicidal maniac who debased the victims as being less than human. 

Ivie found the families’ desire for clemency to be compelling, but admitted “the role of forgiveness is controversial.” Indeed, onscreen one man named Jackson asserts: “There’s no way I can forgive the man who killed my mother.”

The Caucasian writer/director also confessed to the audience at USC, where he’d studied cinema, to having doubts that “I wasn’t the right person to tell this story.” 

Ivie said “the white community did not acknowledge” the state of racism, adding, “I learned about white fragility” while shooting “Emanuel.” 

In order to make a culturally sensitive, authentic film and avoid what he called “paternalism,” Ivie stated he “got out of the way of the families and let them speak for themselves.”

Only black crew members interviewed the African-American subjects shown onscreen, Ivie said. In addition to original footage of relatives shot for the 77-minute documentary, “Emanuel”includes news clips, home video and begins with comic Jon Stewart’s opening of “The Daily Show”following shooting. 

Instead of his usual droll monologue making fun of the day’s news, the comedian was distraught and at a loss for words (let alone jokes), due, Stewart lamented, to “the abyss of the depraved violence we do to each other and the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist.” 

In a rare move for the Comedy Central star, “Stewart gave us the clip for free,” Ivie said.

The film also has brief scenes of an actor portraying Denmark Vesey, a Mother Emanuel founder executed for plotting a slave uprising in 1822. A mob of enraged whites burned down the original church rebuilt after the Civil War.

When British clergyman John Newton created “Amazing Grace” in 1779, the former trans-Atlantic slave trade participant who finally discovered God wrote: “I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see.” 

This redemption is what many relatives wish for the perpetrator of the hate crime against their loved ones at Mother Emanuel, Ivie said. As the hymn goes, “how sweet the sound” would be — if the wretched racist ever saw the error of his ways. 

Ivie vowed filmmakers would “give back anything we make from “Emanuel” to the [victims’] families.” 

The documentary is being specially released at select theaters nationwide for two nights only, June 17 and 19 — the anniversaries of the mass killing and two days later when many relatives appeared at court professing “forgiveness” for Roof.

In addition to “Emanuel” itself, at these specialty screenings theatergoers will also see exclusive interviews with the documentary’s executive producers, NBA superstar Stephen Curry and actress Viola Davis, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for 2016’s “Fences” plus two Academy Award nominations. 

The film is co-produced by Mariska Hargitay, who co-stars in the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”TV series. 

“Emanuel”will be shown, along with the Curry and Davis interviews, at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza 15andXD at 4020 Marlton Ave. To find other theaters where “Emanuel”will be screened see: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/emanuel-2019.    

L.A.-based film historian/critic Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”

By Ed Rampell