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Emanuel

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Emanuel Movie Poster Image
Terrible suffering, violent vintage photos in potent docu.
  • NR
  • 2019
  • 80 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Tells complicated story of complications to do with public declarations of forgiveness for Dylann Roof made by survivors of his terrible act. On the surface, this forgiveness demonstrates compassion, empathy. But as documentary shows, there could be other, less tangible meaning behind survivors' forgiveness, even if only in the mind of the observer. Movie pays respect to that murkiness without insulting survivors. On topic of the shootings, the film is factual and frank, driving home what a terrible act it was, how many lives it ruined.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Survivors show a range of emotions when talking about their lost loved ones, from laughter to heartbreaking sadness. It's clear, though, that those shot were loved dearly by family and friends, and viewers understand magnitude of loss. Documentary doesn't concentrate much on Roof, though there is footage of him practicing shooting, posing with Confederate flags and other symbols of racism. 

Violence

Film is about a church shooting that killed nine people. No imagery of shooting or its aftermath is shown, but CCTV footage shows shooter entering and exiting with guns. Also self-filmed footage of Roof practicing shooting with a gun with a laser sight. Survivors who lost loved ones cry, grieve over their loss; many scenes are very emotionally wrenching to watch. A historical reenactment shows men holding guns and carrying torches; a man is then chained, made to wear terrifying mask. Pictures and news footage show people who've been lynched and shot, hanging from trees, lying on ground. In footage of another shooting, a man runs away from a police officer who shoots him in the back. No blood or gore, but victim is shown falling to the ground, dead. 

Sex
Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Emanuel is a documentary about the 2015 shooting in a traditionally Black church in Charleston that left nine people dead. As you might guess, the film's tone is sad and dark, with many heartrending scenes of grief. Survivors of the shooting and other loved ones left behind are interviewed; many cry heartbreakingly over their loss. But their sadness drives home what a terrible act this was. Most of the violence surrounding the central event takes place off-screen (we don't see crime scene photos or any other documentation of the shooting itself), but there is real-life video of an unarmed man getting shot in the back by a police officer (he crumples to the ground, but we don't see blood or gore). Lynchings, riots, and shootings are also seen in period photos and news footage; again, blood and gore are absent or minimized. The Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, is shown posing with Confederate flags and other White supremacy symbols and practicing shooting. Emanuel is too sad and intense for younger viewers, but sensitive teens may be able to take in the film's messages, particularly if parents watch along and talk afterward about the movie's messages. Themes of empathy and compassion are clear in the way survivors talk about Roof and pray for him. 

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What's the story?

On June 17, 2015, nine people were shot in a Charleston church by a White supremacist who was barely old enough to drink. Taking its name from the church where the congregants' peace was shattered forever, EMANUEL documents the suffering of survivors and the historical and cultural underpinnings that make Dylann Roof's act both unthinkable and possible. With news footage of the shootings and its aftermath, interviews with those who lost their loved ones, and historical images and reenactments illustrating grim racial history like slave uprisings and lynchings, Emanuel seeks to answer one potent question: Why? 

Is it any good?

Heartrending and hard to watch, this movie solemnly pays respect to good people who met a terrible ending -- and to the loved ones left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. Fittingly, though we see Roof in news footage and photos and videos he took himself, dead-eyed and unsmiling during target practice or draped with Confederate images, the film's focus is mostly on the victims and their families. In long segments, survivors like Nadine Collier (who lost her mother, Ethel W. Lance) and Reverend Anthony Thompson (whose wife, Myra, was killed in the shooting) unblinkingly share what they experienced on the night of the shooting -- and what it's been like to live with the absence of their loved ones ever since. 

The details revealed are gutting: Thompson says how much he regrets that he was in the bathroom when Myra left for church that night; he never got to say a final goodbye or kiss her one last time. Felicia Sanders, the mother of victim Tywanza Sanders, says that her son clutched the hair of his Aunt Susie (Jackson, yet another victim) as he died. It's almost a relief when the filmmakers turn away from these grim memories to investigate the roots of Charleston's racial divide, American history during the slave trade era, and the pivotal role of the Christian church in Southern Black communities. Of course, this context only points up how very profane and awful Roof's act was: a shot right in the heart for a community that had already suffered so much. Emanuel helps viewers feel their pain to a small degree -- and points out why those lost should never be forgotten. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what happened at Emanuel African Methodist church. How does Emanuel deal with the shooting? Adults: How would you go about talking about this tragedy with kids? Kids: Which is more upsetting to you: seeing violent acts take place on-screen or hearing people talk about them? Why?

  • What can you do to change things that matter to you? What different avenues do people use to affect change? How has the rise in gun violence affected politics and history in America? 

  • One part of Emanuel talks about the mixed reaction that family members got when they professed to forgive Dylann Roof. In your opinion, does this forgiveness provide evidence of compassion and empathy? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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