“Only five of us were left after the massacre,” said Polly Sheppard.

In 2015, Sheppard was in the prayer circle at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church when a 21-year-old white supremacist started shooting. The nation’s deadliest racially motivated mass shooting at a place of worship took the lives of nine Christians she had worshiped alongside with for years: senior pastor Clementa Pinckney and congregants Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and her best friend Myra Thompson.

Four years to the day of the massacre, Emanuel, a documentary recounting their story, will open in over 1,000 theaters nationwide on Monday. Members of all nine victims’ families participated in interviews, along with survivors such as Sheppard, local reporters, the Charleston mayor, and the Charleston police chief. The film examines societal effects of racism—for this particular historic church and in the American South at large—before transitioning to the massacre and the victims’ loved ones’ subsequent acts of forgiveness.

“This film is not just about racism—it’s about grace,” said director Brian Ivie, who worked on Emanuel for three years. “It’s a story of a group of people who decided they were going to bear the full weight of the wrong and still wish good upon the wrongdoer. That is the highest form of love possible, a love that Jesus Christ perfected.”

Emanuel opens at a time when stories of people of color drifting away from evangelical churches due to increasing politicization of the gospel have made national news.

“It’s a hard movie to watch, in all honesty, because it raises poignant questions,” said Philip Pinckney, a local pastor who leads the regional reconciliation initiative 1Charleston. “What we’ve seen in Charleston is that forgiveness starts a work. Since the massacre, we’ve seen an increase in hard conversations around hard topics.”

Telling the Whole Truth

Emanuel connects the horrific events at one of the nation’s oldest black churches with centuries of racism. Drawing from court evidence, including images of the gunman proudly displaying a Confederate flag, the documentary offers insights into Roof’s motivations.

“[Roof] didn’t randomly pick up a gun,” said Ivie. “He had settled into a worldview and ideology that has been a part of our history for a long time. Motivated by that, this white person killed these black parishioners—because they were black.”

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Keeping this context in mind, Ivie approached the victims’ families and survivors about telling the full story and pairing it with vignettes dramatizing historic racism. In 2016, he and producer and New York City pastor Dimas Salaberrios flew to Charleston to cast their vision for a film. When they arrived at popular local restaurant Sticky Fingers Ribhouse, 20 representatives from all nine families showed up.

“We wanted to make sure we came to their turf and on their terms,” said Ivie. “We told them two things. First, we as producers don’t want to take any money. Second, and even more importantly, we want the world to know where God was in all of this.

“That was the turning point,” adds the filmmaker, whose previous film The Drop Box also explored themes of faith, human dignity, and social justice. “Because there were certainly not a lot of Hollywood types or media in general who were saying that to them about this story.”

While fully exploring the “God element” might have turned off some potential filmmakers, some viewers of the documentary’s trailer criticized the film for including excerpts from President Barack Obama’s address at the memorial service for the late pastor and former state senator Clementa Pinckney. There, after delivering a eulogy for his friend, the former president broke into song, leading the tearfully exultant crowd in several verses of “Amazing Grace.”

“A lot of people don’t like President Obama,” said Ivie. “Many have told me they can’t watch the movie because he is in it. Yet this is the families’ own story, and we tell it as it actually happened.

“That powerful moment, when I believe God takes over, is the heart of the film.”

Audacious Forgiveness and the Cross

Sheppard has shared her story of surviving that Wednesday night hundreds of times in media interviews, civic functions, and church services. “People are listening [to] our message of love and inclusion,” she said. “But sometimes we listen and then we go back to our same old ways. This is a wake-up call.”

Last month, Sheppard and Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife to the massacre, told their stories at a Monday night church service in Montgomery, Alabama.

“Reverend Thompson forgave easily, [but] it wasn’t so easy for me,” said Sheppard in the service. “It took me a little while. When I got there … I [found] who God is. I know I have to forgive over and over again, regardless of what happens.”

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Sheppard’s honest admission of her struggle to forgive seems incongruent with the iconic courtroom scenes when Charleston family members looked Roof in the eye and forgave him. In testimony that went viral, they astonished their fellow Americans by offering forgiveness to the unrepentant white supremacist.

Yet at times these acts of forgiveness have been met with skepticism. Some, for instance, see unjust racial dynamics at play, where black victims are culturally expected to forgive white perpetrators of violence.

“At first glance, forgiveness seems like it’s giving people a way out of repentance and out of a hard conversation,” said Philip Pinckney, who pastors Radiant Church, a multiethnic congregation in Charleston, and who is not related to the late Clementa Pinckney. “Many within the black community see [forgiveness] as weakness rather than being helpful.”

But forgiveness is about something bigger when viewed through a theological lens, he explains.

“From a distinctly Christian perspective, ‘I forgive you’ starts the conversation,” he said. “God’s love for us is not conditional on our getting it right or on our sorrow. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Without a Holy Spirit renewed mind, it’s not going to make sense, but that is how God works in lives.”

During the Montgomery church service, the catalytic role of forgiveness could clearly be seen. Following messages from Sheppard and Thompson, two large wooden crosses were placed on stage. “They had crosses up there for people to pin things they had to forgive people for or things they had done to people,” recalls Sheppard.

Thompson set the stage, discussing the painful violations of abuse, estrangement from family members, and other mistreatment people hold on to with cause. He pressed congregants to let go, to forgive and be forgiven. Hundreds of people streamed to the stage to pin their handwritten notes to the planks.

“When we were leaving, I was amazed by how full those two crosses were,” said Sheppard. “They both were loaded with offenses and different things. It was about learning to love each other. Jesus walked with lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, you know? We have to include and love everybody, as you love yourself.”

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Interviewing dozens of key figures who responded to the massacre has nuanced Ivie’s idea of forgiveness.

“Justice and forgiveness can coexist in a societal and interpersonal sense,” said Ivie. “No one is saying to forgive racism as an idea. Their heart is to forgive this person, who is still a human being and who we all hope will be redeemed.

“In the midst of their forgiveness, it’s also true Dylann Roof was sentenced to death.”

The convicted murderer is currently serving nine consecutive life sentences in a federal penitentiary.

Wake-Up Call

Since the massacre four years ago, Philip Pinckney has seen increased interest in the ecumenical group 1Charleston. A collective of pastors and Christian leaders in the city of Charleston, the group organizes intentional dialogue around race issues to foster “gospel-fueled, Christ-centered racial reconciliation through the church.”

The group providentially started the year before the shootings, say leaders. This month, 1Charleston will co-host a screening of Emanuel for victims’ extended families, local clergy, and civic leaders.

“The strength of 1Charleston is our diversity,” said Pinckney. “We’ve got everything from 100-plus-year-old churches to two-year-old churches, from Anglican to Baptist to Pentecostal. I’m grateful that there were already preexisting relationships through this collective. If connections across culture, race, and denomination had not been formed previously, I’m not sure we could’ve been any help at all in the aftermath.”

Several hot-button issues converge in this cinematic narrative honoring the Emanuel Nine, including ongoing systemic racism, increasing frequency of mass shootings in the US, and why faith in the public square matters.

“Many people are afraid that, on the other side of this conversation, there’s just going to be retribution,” said Ivie on the polarized debates on racial justice. “What we see in this story is on the other side there is a very scandalous grace and beautiful love. It’s important for us as Christians to move into these uncomfortable places—it’s where Jesus lived his entire life.”

How can the church walk out such love when still splintered by cultural, ethnic, and historic divides?

“We have confusion going on in the church, and God is not the author of it,” said Sheppard. “The Lord is trying to wake us up. We have more in common than we have that divides us.”

Distributed by Fathom Events, Emanuel opens in theaters nationwide on June 17 and 19.

Josh M. Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy issues for media outlets including The Stream and The Federalist. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, DC, area with their son.