"Emanuel" Director Brian Ivie on Charleston Church Shooting

Lessons from NBA star Stephen Currys' and actress Viola Davis' produced film.

Posted Jun 17, 2019

Monday marks four years since a horrific shooting took place at the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States, Mother Emanuel AME (Charleston, SC), and shocked the nation. 

 Kellyjeanne9/Wikimediacommons
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 21, 2015.
Source: Kellyjeanne9/Wikimediacommons
 Brian Ivie, used with permission
Emanuel director Brian Ivie
Source: Brian Ivie, used with permission

As a spokesperson for Prayers & Action, which is committed to ending senseless acts of gun violence and helping survivors in the wake of a shooting, I recently had the opportunity to talk with director Brian Ivie (The Drop Box). In this interview (edited for length), I ask him about his work on the new documentary Emanuel, how government leaders have and should respond to racism/mass shootings, and about how media shaped the Emanuel’s shooters ideology and led to his self-radicalization. 

Emanuel was produced by NBA superstar Stephen Curry and Academy Award-winner Viola Davis and is in theaters on June 17 (the four-year mark of the mass shooting) and June 19th. The documentary shares the powerful, untold story of the victims and survivors who surprised the world when at the shooter’s trial, just 48 hours later, they forgave him. 

As I watched your documentary Emanuel, I found myself wondering how you think about your role as a director.

It's unique when you're making a documentary. It's such a different role, I think, than being on a narrative, scripted film. A lot of obvious superficial ways: There's no script. You're certainly much more of a human being in a way, which is really good because a lot of what you do is listen. You don't really instruct them to do anything other than trying to make sure they feel comfortable enough to be themselves.

I see my role as getting the best out of other people. I think that's something that I never wanted in my life originally when I wanted to become a filmmaker, because film is inherently like art—a strangely selfish medium.

But I think there's something really beautiful and pure about being a documentary director, because you're forced to make it about other people every moment of the process. I think that's healthy for the human soul. I think it's good for me as somebody who grew up wanting to be J.J. Abrams, then doing essentially the opposite type of movies.

That's how I see my role. Maybe even more specifically, I also see my role as making sure that whatever story I'm telling, I'm telling with excellence. Because that's what the people deserve. Giving a voice to the voiceless, making sure that this is not something that's forgotten; this is something that requires me to work really hard to make sure that the film stands out and that we're doing it in the best possible way.

One of the scenes shows President Obama and how he responded to the Emanuel shooting. How do you see our government leaders’ roles in helping communities respond to mass shootings?

I think we have to do more than just saying, "We're thinking about you, we're praying for you." That tends to really not help. I think what President Obama did is he went and he suffered with them. He mourned with those who are mourning, and that was the greatest thing he could have done. That was the most human moment I'd ever seen in a president. He didn't have any easy answer, there was nothing he was going to do that could make up for this in any immediate way.

He showed up, he spoke, he sang, he cried, and he was a part of the pain. Therefore, he was a part of the progress and the healing that occurred. It was the most presidential thing I'd ever seen.

I'm curious about what differences you saw between how President Obama responded to white supremacy and racism in Charleston after the Emanuel shooting versus how President Trump responded to white supremacy and racism in Charlottesville after the rally?

I think one of the key differences, and the reason why a lot of my generation and younger do not consider looking to Trump for anything, especially for a president, is because it just never feels like he actually condemns that kind of evil. It's almost like he just knows who's supporting him and wants to make nice with organizations and individuals who support evil ideologies.

He tries to say there are problems “on both sides.” It's more than disappointing. I think what it ends up doing, of course, is perpetuating a certain kind of culture and ideology. That can be dangerous. I think in America in particular, it's the same part of that white fragility. I think for Trump, that is something that I definitely feel is not only working against him and the way he's communicating, but it's working against our progress as the American experiment and also toward our ultimate unity. Because again, you can't actually heal until there's true repentance.

There's no change until there's real truth.

Some of the people interviewed in Emanuel talk about how the Emanuel shooter’s hate had been sparked by what he read online, what some might describe as a “self-radicalization” process. What are your thoughts about this?

I know that the media influences people—more than books and church services.

We are forming and shaping culture and the way people think about the world, the way people think about each other. So, I would just encourage people to live with that healthy burden of fear and to ask themselves, does this story need to be told? Not 'Can I do it?' because of course, you can, you can use your iPhone now and do it.

But, 'Should I do it?' What is that going to bring into the world and into people's hearts and lives? 

Because honestly, I think film, more than anything, has shaped what I believe who I am. I think there is a greater sense of strictness that we should have, and a greater sense of accountability. That's not something that is easy for a lot of people who are entertainers. I'm a communicator. That's how I see myself. I don't see myself as just getting to entertain people or tell stories. I am here to communicate truth for the betterment, for better or worse. I'm always careful and fearful of that process.