Emanuel (2019)

A heartbreaking documentary on one of the darkest & most ghastly acts of violence ever carried out in U.S. history and its effects on a small Charleston church-community, Emanuel is powerful poetry analyzing faith in the face of unspeakable tragedy. 9/10.

Plot Synopsis: On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist walked into a bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and gunned down nine African Americans. How did the small community react to such an act of terror beyond words?

*Possbie Spoilers Ahead*

Review

June 17th, 2015: One Of The Most Evil & Ghastly Human Tragedies Ever Carried Out

June 17th, 2015. Breaking News: ‘Churchgoers Gunned Down During Prayer Service in Charleston, South Carolina.’ The headline blazed the hearts of millions with fiery passion and unmitigated appall at how such an evil act could’ve been carried out in a place we go from all walks of life to find solace, peace, love, and faith. Race, religion, pain, suffering, and many other words not printable in this review got tossed around the viral aftermath and ramifications of this act of terror – but what became of the victims, families, and community during and post-tragedy? What was their experience of this senseless bloodshed? How could something like this happen? What does it mean for both the past, present, and future of America? Of religion itself? Emanuel sets out to answer these complex questions with roots both modern and existential going back to the beginning of time – in one of the most striking, emotional, haunting, thorough, and breathtaking analysis pieces I’ve ever witnessed. A heartbreaking documentary on one of the darkest & most ghastly acts of violence ever carried out and its effects on a small Charleston church-community, Emanuel is powerful poetry analyzing faith in face of unspeakable tragedy.

“Racism Is As American As Apple Pie”

But No One Was Prepared For Something Like This

The film provides thorough, encompassing backstory on the history of the backdrop of this unholy massacre: Charleston, South Carolina. A skyline defined by church steeples rising like phoenixes out of the ashes, even leading to the town’s colloquial name as ‘The Holy City’ by residents and surrounding peoples, the town’s history is anything but demonstrative of those principles. The biggest slave port in colonial America, wherein statistics like ~40% of all slaves in the U.S. passing through its station, the city played a major role in our country’s national shame. During the Civil War era, SC was the first state to secede and where the first shot of the war was fired down at Fort Sumter – and even after the war was over and African-Americans were freed from slavery to rise and become a majority in the city by its pre-existing demographic, there was a culture of pervasive paranoia festering under the surface by many whites worried about their minority status, ‘property’ rebelling and fighting back, and any norm where they were not in control. By this historical status, pre-existing racism still held up by many rural families there today still flaunting Confederate flags like the state’s capitol itself, and tension-filled dynamic, it is of little surprise the battleground has seen its share of hate crimes & supremacy acts as it buoys towards that distant horizon of justice-for-all – but no one was prepared for something like this.

“If You Want To Truly Hurt Someone, You Hit Them Where It Matters To Them Most

What elevates Emanuel amongst the most shockingly-vile and sadistic terrorism acts of American history is how it treads into territory even other mass shootings wouldn’t dare step into: Church. To have the insolence to shoot up the holiest place in human-based society – a place wherein most people are afraid to even think a bad thought for fear of smite by an Old Testament God’s wrath – is truly beyond words, but what makes this act even more harrowing is the location chosen and what it means to African-Americans in the area. After the Civil War and freedom of the oppressed, black churches begin to proliferate massively as safe-havens where they can control their own narrative – places where all walks of life could come and turn off the rest of the world or society’s problems and bear their soul for cleansing and the purity of forgiveness. The idea shares many similarities with why I love cinema – that escapist draw and place I find solace and restful renewal from whatever else I’m going through in this roller-coaster ride called life, making it even more so the one place I couldn’t imagine someone trying to ruin for me. One can only imagine the racism and hatred black people were fighting during the C.W.-Era as well – likely another push towards the prophetical flair and dream of vicarious ascension to heaven and higher status in American culture like that of Jesus and his saints in the stories strikingly-emblematic of the suffering and eventual retribution/reward for the pure of heart black people held onto dearly. This convalesced into making the symbolic flower of hope of churches like Emanuel (the first freestanding black church in the South) so important and off-limits territory no one ever expected would become ground zero for such an unspeakably evil act committed by someone who obviously has no remote semblance of belief in God and wanted to hit African-American in the place it hurt most: Dylan Roof.

The Devil Incarnate

A Symbol Of Unspeakable Evil, Malicious Cowardice, Changing U.S. Norms, Important Media & Gun Conversations, & The Dark Side Of The Internet & Social Media Age

The man of the hour, a heathen/pagan emblem of evil so malevolent, it’s like the devil incarnate: Dylan Roof. It was a standard evening summer Bible Study session for the pure of heart and their families trying to get a spiritual fill when other kids were out having fun and enjoying time off from school. A stranger walks in and asks if he can sit in on the service, and is – despite being a bit out of demographic being white in the predominantly-black church of heritage and historical significance – was welcomed with open arms as a fellow brother trying to better himself through the word of God. He sits through the whole service with so as little of a peep, then when the congregation closes their eyes to say a final prayer, he lights up the room with hollow-point rounds shot off with a pistol blaster with added power and a laser target for maximum carnage and efficiency carrying out his sadistic act of terror on helpless bystanders, women, and children. The churchgoers scatter for their lives as he goes to every crevice, table, and backroom they try hiding in only to blast them to smithereens – including one man who got face-to-face to tell him “you don’t have to do this” and “we mean you no harm” only to still unphaze this wolf-in-sheep’s clothing with a singular mission of ending life in the most sacrilegious of ways and places – after a sermon filled with words of love, hope, acceptance, spirituality, and faith that didn’t even stir any shred of morality from the eyes purest black or elicit remote second-thoughts.

The Story Itself & Having To Hear Firsthand Witness or Family Accounts Is Dark, But The Act’s Origins Are Even Darker

The story itself is unconscionably-dark and will cut to the bone of anyone with even a semblance of faith or belief in any sort of religious ideology especially when told from first-person accounts of people having to describe in detail how their family was brutally murdered before their very eyes, but what makes this event even more one of the defining moments in our country’s modern history is its what it represents emblematically in our progressively-changing U.S. landscape. People of color, women, LGBTQ, and other groups are balancing the scales and purifying the once-only white male landscape of America – a great thing for everyone, except the people in that one subsect of the population having to deal with their piece of the pie and power dynamic shrunken in the quest of the country’s theorized-endgame of justice and freedom for all (not some). The world is also undergoing a tech boom, wherein the Social Media Age has been praised for both positive effects like bringing people together and providing more constant means of communication, and negative ones like isolation and deterioration of self-worth and mental health; being used for righteous causes like calling out corporations, and organizing evil ones like hate groups; spread real information and news, proliferate lies and fake news like anti-vax and the 2016 election cycle ads not only dangerous to our nation but public health causes – all in the everlasting quest for more clicks and virtual currency oftentimes given priority over the journey to get it. That mix – as well as the ease of access anyone with a computer or smartphone can get to the internet and social media even without a trigger event or dark past aginst a group of cause reinforcing tons of biases and psychological loopholes on one bad thought or seed that can spiral and grow out of control – can be a volatile one inspiring violence and acts of hate like Mr. Roof’s. But we also have to look at the situation from the angle of media and gun responsibility as well – because, after all, the prospect of doing something this evil in silence is likely less appealing and the act couldn’t have even been carried out without a weapon of mass extinction and systemic carnage efficiency in guns.

The Aftermath

Vital Conversations On Race, Religion, Grief, Guns, Media, Faith, & Suffering

The media and gun industries need to introspect on their role in events like these, especially given the societal trends like social media and the internet, wherein it’s easy to do background checks, limit consumption to law enforcement and military (only people who really need powerful guns or anything above hunting rifles) besides in special cases, profile for misappropriation (he posted countless pictures with confederate flags and guns and even published his own white supremacy site spewing accusations of immigrant ‘taking over’ and foreboding ‘action’ that should’ve been red flagged), and feel invisible or existence-less trying to find a little fame and recognition from media channels who will blast their name across hemispheres to become household names to millions – even as a villain a dangerous temptation journalists need to rethink or even not mention the names of to prevent complicity in something like this. Also brought up in the documentary is how media portrays black people and their outrage to objectively-awful things happening to them – sometimes presenting them in positions like dead carcasses or animals and playing up the destruction of riots for press when many claim they only do riots after unjust causes like the Rodney King or Trayvon Martin cases because ‘oftentimes that’s the only time reporters will go into ‘bad’ neighborhoods and even hear or care what they have to say.’ This is the dark side of the internet and social media age – but just as an important one as the light side and one demanding serious analysis and re-contemplation to start to fix its negative effects and minimize events like this from happening in the future. The film does an immaculate job thoroughly encompassing all the above tenets with expert up-to-PhD level insight on the issues – as well as holds a magnifying glass to American society to show it’s not all as peaches-and-cream as it’s portrayed, and we like to believe, it is. The film also poses wildly-complex existential and spiritual parables that will make you think long after the credits roll and possibly even for life on how powerful they are thematically: how can we maintain faith in the face of unspeakable tragedy? how can we believe in a God who allows dark events like this to happen? how do you forgive the person who took everything from you? etc.

Breathtaking Cinematography Amongst The Best Ever Seen In A Documentary & Poignant Score Packed With Bleak Tones, Striking Symbolism, Emotion, and Dramaticism

Finally, the cinematography and score are moving beyond-words and some of the best I’ve ever seen in a documentary or historical film. Daniel Stewart has delivered a masterpiece canvas of visuals – with bleak stylism aptly spliced between different encompassing shots to really portray the life stories of the victims interviewed and give them a sense of identity and fleshed-out backstory. This is only bolstered by high-budget feeling historical reenactments from dark times in our nation’s past like slavery escapees running from punishment with crisp dark blue foreboding skies above or shackled in chains and muzzles for viscerally-powerful images to shots as simple as stained-glass window kaleidoscopes, interior Emanuel AME shots post-shooting, and a singular black men clutching his Bible tights to portray faith and the event’s aftermath itself. Christoffer Franzén has delivered equally-exceptional work scoring this masterpiece with a poignant, moving, emotionally-powerful meld of haunting piano melodies, somber tones, minor keys, gentle twangy guitar riffs, and religious hymn/choir undertones to dot the landscape of sensory power with added emotion and dramaticism for something that will guaranteed move anyone with even an ounce of humanity or empathy to tears. Brilliant.

Flaws

The Opening & Forgiveness Emblematic

Flaws in Emanuel are limited to its opening and problematic (prevalent by nature of the case) Forgiveness narrative. The film opens – bizarrely – into a comedian’s morning show take complete with laugh-track who then changes the subject to try to be serious about the story. It is quite possibly one of the most disservicing, jarringly-dissonant and mismatched openings to a film I’ve ever seen in my filmic tenure – where you come in with a set mindset and emotion-brace ready for your heart strings to be mercileslly tugged by the nature of the concept that’s ANYTHING but funny, but are given an inconsistent opening that downright bewilders and even partially trivializes the situation’s massive gravity and seriousness the rest of the film at least goes on well to salvage portraying after that awkward note. Finally, the narrative that made headlines and divided both Christians, African-Americans, and everyone in between – the forgiveness families of the victims displayed towards the unconscionable: Dylan Roof. How could you possibly forgive the person who took everything from you, to his face? While I can partially grasp the love-trumps-hate argument defenders of the act gave, citing the forgiveness Jesus exercised even when on the cross towards his trespassers who knew not what they were doing – this is a drastically-different situation. This is a hate crime with roots going back to the darkest time in our country’s history showing its presence yet again even centuries later, whose perpetrator admitted repeatedly he did not feel even slightest bit of remorse and even recounted the event in a blasé ‘yeah so it happened (yawn) like this’ way after committing one of the most sinister and sacrilegious mass shootings in American history in the holiest and most unconscionable of all places. In my view – and as several interviewees in the film agreed – forgiving such an act of unspeakable evil comes off a bit weak, submissive, and condoning of such behavior, when such behavior is so morally-repugnant and vile even in concept, it is one of the biggest factors limiting the growth of our nation, race-equality, and progressivism/social-evolution. The documentary itself does a ~convincing job summarizing the main points with a little existential analysis on the forgiveness narrative’s origins and what made the adopters say it, but not enough to thoroughly convince the average bystander or critic as a flaw foundational to the premise they knew had to be coming and was controversial/unpopular when it first released.

Conclusion

One Of The Best Documentaries I’ve Ever Seen – And Easily The Best of 2019

A Heartbreaking Documentary On One Of The Darkest Acts Of Violence & Hate In Modern History As Elegant As It Is Emotionally-Powerful

Overall, Emanuel is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen – and easily the best of 2019 as well as one of the year’s best and most emotionally and spiritually-satisfying ones all humans need to see. Sure the opening is tonally-off plus one of the most jarringly-inconsistent I can remember and forgiveness narrative ~sloppily handled deserving far more exposition and argument analysis if it really wanted to convince us forgiving a mass white supremacist murdered was ‘spiritually-sound’, but the rest of the film is so breathtakingly-gorgeous and transcendental, it easily makes up for it. A heartbreaking documentary on one of the darkest & most ghastly acts of violence ever carried out and its effects on a small Charleston church-community, Emanuel is powerful poetry analyzing faith in face of unspeakable tragedy.

Official CLC Score: 9/10