The crowd was feverish with anticipation to see their NBA All-Star darling, Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry, who, because of flight delays, was late to the stage at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium on Wednesday night.
Curry was at the Mecca to premiere the documentary, Emanuel, the doleful story of the 2015 murder of nine parishioners during Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by 21-year-old Dylann Roof in Charleston, S.C. The film—set for release in theaters June 17, the fourth anniversary of the shooting—is produced by Curry’s new production company, Unanimous Media, along with Viola Davis’ and Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions.
The story is told from the perspective of the family members of the nine victims—senior pastor and South Carolina State Sen. Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; Depayne Middleton-Doctor; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; Susie Jackson; Myra Thompson; Tywanza Sanders; Ethel Lance; and Daniel Simmons—with voices that express equal parts anguish and inspiration. After the screening, journalist Lauretta Charlton moderated a discussion with Curry, his business partner Jeron Smith and director Brian Ivie.
The film provides historical context to the city of Charleston as the main port where enslaved Africans came to the United States. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union because of fears that President Lincoln would not protect the institution of slavery. Black churches flourished in South Carolina after the Civil War and Emancipation. The churches that sprung up, in many ways, were symbols of freedom, anti-slavery resistance, social justice and hope. Whites were threatened by the growth of black churches, and church burnings were frequent.
Charleston’s Mother Emanuel A.M.E. is the oldest A.M.E church in the South; it is also the church of Denmark Vesey, the leader of a slave revolt, who planned to bring enslaved Africans to Haiti for refuge. He and his followers were executed and the church was destroyed; it didn’t come back into existence until after the Civil War.
The film also deals with South Carolina’s present—a state that only acquiesced to removing the Confederate flag from the state capitol after the fallout from the murders at Emanuel but still has supporters who raise it every year in defiance.
As the film walks the audience through the day of the murders—with chilling footage of Roof practicing with a gun, confessing to the killings as he ate Burger King and listening to victims’ family members at his bond hearing as they forgave him 48 hours after shooting—it also adds context to the time period when the killings took place. The Emanuel shooting happened just two months after Walter Scott was shot five times in the back and killed by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. A few audience members wailed loudly in grief at images of Scott’s body lying crumpled on the ground.
Another emotional moment occurs as Tywanza Sander’s mother, Felicia Sanders, spoke about her son and granddaughter, who kept telling her: “Granny, Granny, I’m afraid, I’m afraid,” as Felicia pulled her close to her on the church floor. Felicia Sander’s story was one that alternated from chilling to inspiring. She laid out the details of that day in measured tones as she told her son, who was nicknamed Ty, “Don’t say anything, lay dead.” Tywanza, who was wounded, had spoke to Roof, asking him, “Why are you doing this?” and “we mean you know harm,” before Roof opened fire on him after saying that white women were getting raped and black people were taking over. Shot multiple times, Tywanza was still determined to help, saying, “Where’s Aunt Susie? I have to get to Aunt Susie” referring to one of the murdered victims, Susie Jackson. His mother told him she loved him and he said, “Mom, I love you too,” before he took his last breath.
Onscreen, family members relayed their feelings of forgiveness on the day of Roof’s hearing—most said that the feeling of forgiveness was unexpected—and that the words they expressed came from God. One family member said the act of forgiveness allowed them freedom while Roof would continue to carry the burden. Other family members said they could never forgive Roof and talked about their anguish when headlines focused on the forgiveness angle while they were struggling with grief, reconciliation and anger with no need or want to forgive Roof.
The overwhelming theme told through the spirit of the family members is that love endures. Stories of last moments with loved ones and inspirational revelations unfold; Chris Singleton, who is now a player for the Chicago Cubs, thought he had written scripture on his wrist to inspire him to win baseball games but instead the passage was actually prescient in preparing him for the adversity he’d face when his mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, was murdered for doing nothing more than attending Bible study.
“It’s so hard to put yourself in their shoes and empathize with what they’re going through,” Curry told the moderator and the audience after the screening, speaking about the family members. “It’s so inspiring the way they handled it, they chose faith, they chose to support each other and the community around them. And that speaks volumes for humanity.”