Growing up in Los Angeles, Brian Ivie dreamed of becoming a famous filmmaker. While enrolled in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, he studied some of the most critically acclaimed Hollywood directors in pursuit of that goal. But a newspaper article about a pastor in one of the poorest districts in Seoul, South Korea, who built a Drop Box in his home for people to deposit unwanted babies with disabilities took him abroad to document that story. He came back to the U.S. realizing that he, like those babies, also needed to be saved.
Do you think your purpose as a filmmaker is to tell more nuanced stories of Christianity?
Well I think when I first became a Christian I figured you had to go to Africa and live in a tent and serve as a missionary, and then God called me back to Hollywood. I think that was something I really struggled with because I didn’t understand how that could be reconciled with my faith and what I wanted to do, which was to just tell people about God.
And, of course, as I know now, this is really the greatest way to do that because the houses of worship of our culture are really not churches, or temples or mosques, they’re YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. So my purpose, I would say changed way beyond movies, meaning that my heart now is to build God’s kingdom instead of building my own empire. That would be the truth even if I was a chef, or anything else, but I think when it comes to movies, it’s always something I knew wanted to do. I just didn’t know why. I didn’t know what stories I was going to tell. So now I think I’ve just committed to myself that whatever story I tell it’s going to be about Him. It’s going to be what he’s like. My heart is to make Christian films for non-Christians, basically, films that preach beyond the choir and invite people in.
The canon of faith-based films generally features storylines where there are fewer blurred lines about the impact of faith in someone’s life. It also hasn’t included documentary. Do you think you’re breaking into any new ground in how you chose to tell this story?
My films have these themes and these ideas because of who I am, less because its something I’m trying to engineer. The more I spend time with God, the more the films have those kinds of ideas and the themes are present. I think that’s true of any filmmaker no matter what. Filmmaking is a very spiritual endeavor, no matter what you believe. I don’t know if I’m breaking new ground, but I think what I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned. I think most faith-based films are just part of the “holy huddle,” and they’re just preaching to the choir and don’t really make sense to anybody outside of church culture.
I didn’t grow up in the culture of Christianity. I grew up watching Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson. So I hope that I can reach kind of a different audience, definitely a younger one, but also one that is much more cynical and skeptical and hopefully reaches them where they are. Usually, they’re not watching “God’s Not Dead.” They’re watching “Stranger Things” or “The People vs. O.J. [Simpson],” so, that’s kind of what I’m hoping to live.
The documentary form was really just chosen because of a lack of resources, because it’s cheaper, initially, but I also think it lends itself well to talking about faith because that’s what people expect from documentaries—is to be educated or to be confronted with something. Whereas usually, it can feel like a bait and switch, in a documentary you’re able to have a real conversation with someone, that’s why I like that form.
What have you observed from audiences who have screened EMANUEL?
I think what I’m really thankful for is that audiences have, no matter what they come into that room with, they’ve come out, I think, more free. There are a lot of people who have a lot of anger. I think that anger is very justified and very righteous in many respects—especially in the African American community.
African Americans come out of the film really honored. I think that was really cool for me to see because as a White American my fear was that I would, in some way, even unintentionally, just whitewash the movie. But thankfully in every screening, I’ve had an African American come up to me and say, ‘thank you for not doing that’ and “thank you for honoring my people, thank you for giving us a voice.’ Honestly, I just see my role as handing the microphone to people who really have something to say. So, that’s been amazing.
For White Americans that come in to see the film, I’ve seen them be very humbled and quiet. That’s been really cool to see, too, because it shows that we’re now listening a little bit more to the wounded people of our country and in our community that really need healing. That’s not just going to be through conversation. It’s going to be hard work, but it’s a start. Then, I’ve also seen people come out of the film who are feeling like maybe God is real, even if they didn’t walk in with that belief, and that is my greatest goal. So that’s been really encouraging.
Speaking of race were there any challenges that you felt that you had to overcome to show the family members they could trust you with their story?
At first, I was very scared that this would be disrespectful or weird or at the very least it this would be something like you say, a huge obstacle because there’s certainly something I can never understand about being Black.
There’s a wound that’s just too deep. A lot of times I don’t say anything at all and I just listen and let them share. Which is why I think a lot of the interviews are so like you said, uncut because I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. But I will say that I didn’t conduct the interviews with the families. That was a choice that I made so that they could look at somebody who understood them and understood their experience at a deeper level. So my producing partner Dimas conducted those interviews and also really pastored them and cared for them through that process because he is a Reverend.
But I think honestly the families really embraced me. That was a super surprising thing, but I think it was less because, even just White/Black and all that, it was because beneath all of that or before all of that my identity to Christ. I shared that with them. As I said to them at the first meeting I wanted the world to know where God was in all of this. They had never heard a media person, whether Black or White, say that before. So I think that’s why they came to trust me.
How did the project come together?
I tried to stay away from the story for a year because I didn’t want to be an opportunist but then ended up meeting my producing partner Dimas Salaberrios on a totally separate project. He asked me what was really on my heart and I told him the story in Charleston. He ended up having been there and marched over the bridge and prayed over the families and had relationships and so we really just started to work together and joined hands to see if we could tell God’s story through this.
So we met with the families. Viola was a friend. Stephen was not. But they both ended up seeing the film. I think of Viola as an activist and Stephen as a Christian — both of them really as Christians. Stephen was a man of faith who was trying to build a new company that stood for Christ in Hollywood. They both felt like this was a story that they didn’t want the world to forget. Mariska, in a similar way, was really moved by the story and in her own life had had a lot of loss and trauma and felt that this film presented a way of healing and the rest is history.
What are you working on next?
Right now I am working on the Kirk Franklin movie. My first interaction with faith was in a gospel party in college and so it’s really exciting to see the confluence of all that Kirk has made and also my own experience in this project. We’re hoping to get that done at the end of the year.
Forgiving the gunman who shot nine worshipers four years ago during Bible Study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church wasn’t an option for some family members.
“Let me tell you something. I was really mad. Really angry,” said Nadine Collier, whose mother Ethel Washington Lance was among those killed when seventy-seven bullets were fired as they bowed their heads to pray on the evening of June 17, 2015. “But when you look at him, you can’t give this person the power over you. You just can’t.”
Collier made these remarks at the Washington, D.C. premiere of EMANUEL, a documentary film on the shooting set to screen June 17 and 19 in theaters across the country, marking the somber fourth anniversary of the tragedy. Through interviews, family members tell the stories of their loss as scholars help viewers understand this mass shooting through the lens of South Carolina’s past.
The film’s two-night run also highlights the extraordinary remarks family members made to the shooter just forty-eight hours after the killings of their pastor, their grandfather, their mothers, their aunts, their sisters, and their children.
“I just want everybody to know that I forgive you,” Collier said to then 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a self-proclaimed White supremacist, as he appeared before the court and the family members via video conferencing for his bond hearing. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you.”
Reverend Anthony Batiste Thompson lost his wife Myra, who that night was leading the Bible study for the first time. But he continued those sentiments. “I forgive you and my family forgive you…We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent, confess, give your life to the one who matters the most—Christ, so he can change you.”
Roland Martin leads a panel discussion with Nadine Collier, Polly Sheppard, Rev. Anthony Batiste Thompson, and Chris Singleton after the screening of the film ‘Emanuel’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019, in Washington, DC.
In the film, Felicia Sanders recounted feeling the warmth of her son’s blood after Roof walked up to him and fired several bullets into his body while she and her eleven-year-old granddaughter quietly lay nearby under a table. But she too forgave.
“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” Sanders said. “Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my hero, but as we said in the Bible study, “We enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.” Roof also shot and killed Susie Jackson, Sanders’ aunt.
Given the lingering effects of South Carolina’s legacy as the first state to secede from the union during the lead up to the Civil War, along with the historical burnings of Black churches, some onlookers found these expressions of forgiveness remarkable.
As the filmmakers analyze the events of the shooting four years later, during a time in America when the ideology driving violent acts of White supremacy persists, they hope audiences develop a greater understanding of this reaction and a deeper insight into the capacity for forgiveness among these family members. All have deep connections to their faith and to Emanuel A.M.E., one of the oldest Black churches in the South. Even as they sought justice, they chose to forgive the person who took away their loved ones, forever changed the course of their lives and tested their faith.
“It’s a miracle that people here can forgive…and that’s not just because they were conditioned by their environment. Those that forgave—it wasn’t an act of weakness by any way,” said Dimas Salaberrios, one of the film’s co-producers. “God showed up and did something that we can’t explain, but it’s very real and it’s very powerful. I hope that African Americans around this nation will really tune in and see what God has done and the hearts that he’s given us to be able to forgive.”
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 14: Friends and family of “The EMANUEL 9” before a screening of the film ‘EMANUEL’ at the Museum of the Bible on May 14, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for EMANUEL Film)
Not all family members immediately forgave the shooter and that, too, is an important part of this story, Salaberrios says. “What I’ve learned from examining the lives of these families is that different people are in different places.”
Bethane Middleton Brown lost her sister Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor in the shooting. “I agreed that we needed to [forgive], but I wasn’t there yet,” Brown said. “Mine came because I noticed that my anger was getting worse. I didn’t understand what I was feeling. Finally, I was able to put a face on my emotions and realize that I had forgiven. I never have any anger that links [Roof] in my thoughts. My anger is just simply, I want my sister here. So I have forgiven. I still would like to make sure justice stays, but I have forgiven.”
The loss of these nine lives led to the immediate removal of the Confederate flag, which flew on the grounds of the state capitol building for decades and was featured in many of the images Roof posted on the pages of his social media accounts.
Even so, four years later Tyrone Sanders, husband of Felicia and father of Tywanza, who at 26 was the youngest victim, still is struggling with forgiveness.
“I don’t think I can ever get there. I guess the historic truth about America, you know like slavery, the Indian Removal Act, and Trump’s talking about building a wall,” Sanders explained. “I was born and raised in the church. Christened, baptized, sang in the choir. My grandfather was a preacher. My great grandfather was a preacher. My mother sang in the church and all of her sisters. I grew up in the church,” he said.
But that still isn’t enough to comfort the loss of his son during that midweek Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. that evening. “If I’ve got to forgive, that’s where it will be. Up there. It won’t be on this side. I’ll take that to my grave.”
With EMANUEL as his second major documentary film project, these are the stories that director Brian Ivie feels called to capture.
“What I am trying to do within the context of faith-based films is try to make films that speak to the reality of God to an audience that may or may not believe and that is disinterested and disillusioned,” Ivie said.
Among the films producers include actresses Viola Davis and Marisky Hargitay and NBA MVP Stephen Curry who will donate their share of the profits to the survivors of the shooting and the families of the victims. Visit www.emanuelmovie.com for more information about the time and location of a screening near you.
Senior Pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, speaks to those gathered during the Watch Night service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on December 31, 2012. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Randall Hill
Those are the words used by fellow state senator Marlon Kimpson on CNN Thursday morning to describe the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor and politician who was among nine people killed when a gunman, believed to be white, opened fire Wednesday evening at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
Pinckney’s sister also died in the shooting, said J. Todd Rutherford, the minority leader of the state’s House of Representatives. Her name is not known and the other victims, two men and five women, were not immediately identified.
Rutherford, who has served in the State Legislature with Pinckney since 1998, told the New York Times that his colleague was “a man driven by public service” whose booming voice inspired his congregation and constituents.
Pinckney, 41, was married with two children and had served in the state Senate since 2000, according to an online biography on the church’s website.
The pastor was a magna cum laude graduate of Allen University with a degree in business administration and went on to earn a master’s degree in the same subject at the University of South Carolina, the site said. He then obtained a master’s of divinity from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.
According to Rutherford and the website, Pinckney started preaching at 13 and received his first appointment to be a pastor at 18. At 23, he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representativesthe youngest state legislator in South Carolina history, and in 2000 was elected to the State Senate. Washington Post columnist David Broder called Pinckney a “political spirit lifter for surprisingly not becoming cynical about politics,” the site said.
A black mourning cloth was draped over Pinckney’s seat in the senate chamber in the capital, Columbia, Wednesday, according to news reports.
In 1999, Ebony Magazine named Pinckney as one of 30 African-American leaders of the future. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children, Eliana and Malana.
State Rep. Wendell Gilliard told the Charleston Post and Courier that he visited Pinckney’s wife and daughters after the shooting. saying that the family is “surrounded by friends.”
In April, Pinckney helped lead a prayer vigil for Walter Scott, a black South Carolina man who was shot dead by a police officer as he tried to run away.
The veteran civil rights campaigner Al Sharpton, who was also involved in the vigil, tweeted on Wednesday night: “Rev. Clements Pinckney, a SC legislator is among the 9 killed in SC church. I am reminded that he helped lead our prayer vigil for Scott.”
The church is one of the nation’s oldest black congregations. It is housed in a 1891 Gothic Revival building which is considered a historically significant building, according to the National Park Service, which said that the church is the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore.
The congregation was formed by black members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church who broke away “over disputed burial ground,” according to the park service’s website.
In 1822, one of the church’s co-founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to start a slave rebellion in Charleston, the website added. The plot was discovered and 35 people were executed, including Vesey.
The Rev. Joseph Darby of the AME Church in Beaufort, S.C., described Pinckney as “an advocate for the people.” He told MSNBC that “he was a very caring and competent pastor, and he was a very brave man. Brave men sometimes die difficult deaths.”
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