Charleston Church Shooting Was ‘Like a Family Tragedy’ for Stephen Curry, ‘Emanuel’ Director Says

“The victims were almost like familiar faces from growing up in church. This was a way of giving back and making sure the world didn’t forget,” Brian Ivie tells TheWrap

Following yet another NBA Finals run with the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Curry, the three-time champion’s production company, Unanimous Media, has released a new documentary film focused on the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Emanuel,” which Unanimous executive produced along with Viola Davis, tells the story of June 17, 2015, when Dylann Roof walked into a bible study at the church and killed nine African Americans during their closing prayer.

The film hit theaters for a limited run on Monday — the four-year anniversary of the shooting — and features intimate interviews with survivors and family members who were left to grapple with the senseless act of terror.

“I think for Steph and Viola both, this was like a family tragedy,” Brian Ivie, who co-directed the film with Unanimous Media CEO Jeron Smith, told TheWrap. “The victims were almost like familiar faces from growing up in church. This was a way of giving back and making sure the world didn’t forget. For Steph specifically, I know that his faith is also what drew him to the story.”

Curry grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is 200 miles from Charleston, as his father Dell spent most of his NBA career playing with the Charlotte Hornets.

Screening for a special run on June 17 and 19 only, “Emanuel” inspired stars like Justin Timberlake, Halle Berry, SZA, Charlize Theron, Mahershala Ali, Lena Waithe and Gabrielle Union to buy out theaters around the country and donate the tickets to local organizations and communities.

“The documentary highlights how a horrible tragedy can bring a community together and spreads an important message about the power of forgiveness,” Curry said in a statement. “Stories like this are the reason we created Unanimous and entered the entertainment space. I hope the film inspires others like it does me.”

“We, along with the country, grieved each family’s loss,” expressed Viola Davis and Julius Tennon of JuVee Productions, added. “Yet, miraculously, from this devastation we witnessed tremendous benchmarks of humanity. The survivors found courage to love in the face of hate.”

The shooter, Roof, was sentenced to nine consecutive sentences of life without parole in April 2017 after formally pleading guilty to state murder charges.

“If ‘Emanuel’ gets one person to put their gun away then we’ll have done our job,” Ivie said.

Watch the trailer above and read the full Q&A with Ivie below.

TheWrap: What drew you to the story of the Emanuel shooting?
Brian Ivie: A Bible study was a place I knew very well so this was the closest to home one of these mass shootings had ever felt. Then, of course, I watched the hearing where the families forgave the murderer. That’s where it started for me.

Is there anything you learned in making the film that wasn’t known about the tragedy before?
I learned that the killer had a list of other churches he was planning to visit. I also learned that despite the comfy narrative of forgiveness first offered, many family members didn’t feel that way. We worked hard to ensure all perspectives were covered in the film and to dignify everyone’s reaction.

Why did this shooting strike a particular chord?
I think because of where it happened and also because of how the families responded to the killer. How do you forgive a murderer 48 hours after the murder? The danger, of course, is that this narrative of forgiveness starts to distract from the harder conversations that we need to be having as a country. We still have a lot of work to do and the film grapples with many themes. But for me personally, I know I stand in need of forgiveness in my own life, so I made the film from that place.

However, it wasn’t just forgiveness that struck me. It was love. The kind of love that bears the full weight of the wrong and still wishes good upon the wrongdoer. The kind you read about in the Bible but rarely see in real life.

Do you think the U.S. as a country progressed or regressed in terms of gun violence in the past four years since the shooting?
Regressed quite honestly. Much of that I attribute to our leadership but also to lack of real effort to make lasting change. I would like to include myself in that category, as issues of racial justice and gun violence were not even on my radar before making this film. In the American church, we like to pray and preach about issues, but rarely do we pursue the systemic change necessary to make a real difference in suffering communities. It’s simply harder and it takes longer, so we bail. I’m hoping to be a bigger part of the solution moving forward.

Why did this event particularly resonate with Curry and Davis? 
I think for Steph and Viola both, this was like a family tragedy. The victims were almost like familiar faces from growing up in church. This was a way of giving back and making sure the world didn’t forget. For Steph specifically, I know that his faith is also what drew him to the story.

How did Davis get involved?
I knew Viola from a previous project. But I think the film was just really personal for her. She’s from South Carolina. She’s also a Christian woman. I wanted her involved because of her activism and voice. When she speaks, people listen. And things change.

Did you meet with Dylann Roof during the making of the film?
We made a decision early on not to interview him. It was our commitment to the families not to make the movie about him, while also working hard to expose the lies he believed, which are still embedded in our culture.

What do you want viewers to take away from watching “Emanuel”?
I hope they see the wounds of African Americans more clearly and that we still have a lot of work to do.

Is there anything you think society should do to stop these horrific mass shootings and hate crimes?
I think it’s a combination of legislation and culture shift. We need a culture of gun safety and accountability and mental health. Beyond the obvious like restricting access (especially to young people) and requiring background checks, I think we as a society have to change the narrative of masculinity, love, and of course race. If ‘Emanuel’ gets one person to put their gun away then we’ll have done our job.