Advent hope and Easter faith: a film review of Emanuel
By Joe Sawatzky
This Advent season many churches will sing, “O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” In doing so, we plead that “God with us” — Emmanuel — may “appear a second time” to complete in history the freedom from evil, sin and death, accomplished in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9:28). Grounded in the past, our hope for the future is fueled in the present, whenever we become acutely aware that God is with us. True to its title, Emanuel — a documentary film about the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina — channels just such hope.
Emanuel, directed by Brian Ivie and co-produced by celebrities Stephen Curry and Viola Davis, was released in theaters last summer and was ready for purchase this fall. The movie tells the story of the nine church members gunned down June 17, 2015, at a Bible study in their historic African-American church by a young White male seeking to start a race war. Through dramatic vignettes, evocative imagery, and compelling interviews, the film places the tragedy in the history of American racism. Charleston was “the premier slave port” through which 40 percent of African Americans trace their lineage. South Carolina was the only original U.S. colony in which Blacks outnumbered Whites, a fact fueling White hysteria about a reversal of society’s racial hierarchy. “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, was a symbol of Black self-determination in the face of White supremacy. Emanuel also connects the mass shooting to the contemporary context of lethal violence against unarmed Black men, including Charleston’s own Walter Scott. He was shot five times in the back while fleeing a White police officer a few months prior.
These scenes form the backdrop to Emanuel’s main theme — the intensely personal, problematic, and theologically profound process called forgiveness. Viewers are likely to weep with Nadine Collier as she recounts how she heard that her mother, Ethel Lance, had perished in the massacre. In the eyewitness testimony of his mother, Felicia Sanders, we are compelled by the love of Tywanza, who spoke grace to his killer, “You don’t have to do this ... we mean you no harm.” Tywanza delayed death just long enough to reach his beloved “Aunt Susie” [Jackson] where she lay bleeding.
Without resolving knotty theological questions, we may find ourselves strangely comforted in the words of the preacher Anthony Thompson. He detected an extraordinary glow alighting his wife, Myra, on the morning of her murder as she eagerly departed for Bible study. “I understood it afterward,” says Thompson, “she was already in her glory.” We may also ponder the testimony of collegiate athlete Chris Singleton. He realized in the wake of his mother’s death that the biblical proverb that had strengthened him on the baseball field that season “wasn’t for baseball.”
Each of the above made public and unplanned pronouncements of forgiveness toward Dylann Roof, their loved ones’ killer. This spontaneity of grace seems to be Emanuel’s main point, echoed also in the climactic footage from the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel AME’s slain pastor. Indeed, eyewitnesses recount the moment during the oration when “something came over” President Barack Obama and he “began to preach.” Extolling the mysterious merits of forgiveness on display in Emanuel’s members, and following a pregnant pause, a song sprang up, “Amazing Grace ...”
For all its compelling power, forgiveness is not presented without its problems. Viewers may find themselves persuaded by Muhiyidin D’Baha and Waltrina Middleton, activists who hold forgiveness accountable for the deferment of justice. We hear Melvin Graham Jr., brother of the slain Cynthia Graham Hurd, resolve not to forgive until Roof can say which of the seven shots fired into Hurd’s body was the one that killed her. We also hear him say of those family members who pronounced forgiveness, “God truly worked a work in them. I am a work in progress.”
Graham’s words may best articulate that hope for a meeting of salvation’s past and future, where “the finished work” — “God truly worked a work in them” — holds the promise for God’s “work in progress.” In beseeching “Immanuel” for the “ransom” to come, we may remember the “amazing grace ... that saved a wretch like me.” In expressing our Advent hope, we may experience our Easter faith, that the “one who endured such hostility against himself from sinners” is even now Emmanuel, “God is with us” (Hebrews 12:3; Matthew 1:23).
At once educational and affective, Emanuel ultimately portrays forgiveness as the real presence of God in Christ with his people, rising up, and renewing us in faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).