Movie Review: Emanuel

By | June 18, 2019

My experience gives me the impression that it is very difficult to make a good documentary, perhaps even more difficult than making any other kind of film (not necessarily in the technical aspects, but in terms of writing and editing). In many ways, Emanuel was very well made, impressive even. Yet one of my first impressions after leaving the theater was that something was missing. Something felt unresolved.

The documentary begins by reviewing a bit of the racial history of Charleston, South Carolina, the scene of the events documented in this film. The bulk of the approximately 70 minutes is filled with a recounting of the events which happened (a young white man shot 9 blacks to death in a bible study), accounts of family and witnesses, and remembering of the deceased. Part of the movie touched on the racial tension and demonstrations in other cities. The account of the events in Charleston included the words of forgiveness offered by family members of the victims. Though this wasn’t made overly clear (at least in my initial impression), the film seemed to suggest that the forgiveness offered by the victims* in Charleston led to a lack of a tumultuous and/or even violent response by a black community too often on the receiving end of injustice.

But the movie ended there. It felt incomplete, like something was missing. First of all, the film didn’t share what forgiveness meant. Some of the victims said words of forgiveness just a couple of days after the shooting. I wondered, had they even had a chance to fully process what happened and its impact on them? I believe that forgiveness is healthy, but it’s not dismissive of the harm done. I wanted to hear what forgiveness meant to each of the people who offered it. Forgiveness is much deeper than a word. What did this cost them? How did it transform them? What inspired them to forgive? Yes, their forgiveness was briefly tied to Christianity, but I feel like a more robust explanation was omitted.

Beyond this, the events still left nine people dead and many more wounded and mourning. Forgiveness doesn’t change this. I guess this is why the forgiveness as portrayed in the movie felt shallow and the story incomplete to me. What now? What of the future? Do the victims merely go on enduring the suffering from their loss? I could point to the future hope in Christ, but this wasn’t mentioned in the movie. How can we prevent this from happening again? Forgiveness is important for the victims, but it doesn’t reduce racism, does it? (Honest question.) I felt hurt and angry and just the incomprehensible wrongness of a man walking in a shooting to death nine people based solely on their race. I want to do something to prevent this from happening again. I want to do what I can, little though it may be, to end racism.

This was the other reason the movie felt incomplete. At the end, it felt as though things were just left at the status quo. I didn’t sense any progress on race relations, no step closer to reconciliation. It felt like the black community will be left to continue enduring injustice. But it’s not just them. I suffer from injustice (because I can imagine myself in their shoes to enough of an extent that I identify with them as fellow human beings). We all suffer when injustice is present (though we obviously don’t all suffer in the same way or to the same degree). Perhaps the filmmakers intended this documentary to inspire motivation to positive change. What can we do?

*I used “victims” here and in the remainder of the article to indicate those who either witnessed the shooting or are close to those who were killed. I believe the label of victim is appropriate because they have been wounded in a very real and lasting way.

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