The power of the documentary ‘Emanuel’ brought Stephen Curry’s mother to tears
Film about the Charleston church murders will make you angry again, and cry and moan too
Wednesday night wasn’t supposed to be Sonya Curry’s night, and she made sure of that as she made her way to her front-row reserved seat at a nearly packed Cramton Auditorium at Howard University without much fanfare.
Wearing a black hat with a brim covering the top half of her face, blue jeans and blue leather sneakers, one of the NBA’s most visible moms hardly stood out among the crowd that had waited patiently to see a documentary for which one of the league’s biggest stars serves as executive producer.
Wednesday night, Sonya Curry was just fine being Stephen Curry’s mom.
“Well, right in the middle of [the screening], I texted [husband] Dell and was like, ‘I think this is one of the top proudest moments as a mom for me.’ And then I texted [Stephen’s wife] Ayesha the same thing,” Curry said. “I’ve cried the whole night, for one, from the movie itself, and two, just … I’m really, truly amazed that God is using my son and allowing him to be a part of things like this, but also allowing me to be witness to it as well. So it is truly just … it just blows me away.”
The screening of Emanuel, which tells the story — in painstaking detail, through the eyes of surviving relatives, journalists, coroners and local officials — of how 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, and murdered nine African-Americans, pulled no punches.
Executive produced by Stephen Curry’s new production company, Unanimous Media, along with actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon’s JuVee Productions, organizers of the event promised the waiting crowd that Curry himself would make an appearance and take part in a post-screening talk-back.
But when the houselights finally went down at 8:33 p.m., a full hour after the film’s scheduled start, a Stephen Curry sighting hardly mattered. It was 2015 again, a time in America when race, police brutality and injustice toward black people dominated the headlines and our collective consciousness.
“I was in Charleston right after the shooting, and there are perspectives in this film that I just hadn’t heard before,” explained DeRay Mckesson, who became synonymous with the protest movement that developed in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and who also has become a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s always important that we tell a full story,” Mckesson went on. “For me personally, as somebody who was with the protesters both for Walter Scott [on April 4, 2015, in North Charleston, South Carolina, after a daytime traffic stop] and during this moment, it is in some ways still too recent, you know? I think this shows parts of the story in one place [that] we just haven’t seen before. So there are perspectives that … I think I need a little more time. A happy aside, it’s important that this [film] exists, and there are some parts of this that I think will trigger people in a way that [will generate] conversation just like they did tonight.”
It was Sonya Curry’s first time seeing the film, first time seeing her son onstage with the documentarians, and she found herself seeing her oldest of three kids in a whole different light.
“I don’t even have words,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m looking on the stage and that’s who I’m talking about and he’s being able to do the things that he’s doing. Usually what he does on the court is probably the least thing that I’m marveled at. He’s always been like that. I mean, we’ve always known that all of our children are special, and we know that God’s gonna use all of us in different ways, but there’s always been something about him that was special and different. And so I’m seeing these things come to fruition and I’m like, ‘OK. OK, God.’ ”
While the film centered on that fateful night that brought America to tears, with President Barack Obama singing Amazing Grace during the eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney nine days later, the 75-minute documentary made a point to retell the ugly history of Charleston, a seaport for about 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought into the country during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Why was that backdrop pertinent to the story? Director Brian Ivie explained that was just as important to the story as the fact that most families affected by Roof’s hateful actions called for his forgiveness.
“When I found out about this tragic event, I was on my honeymoon,” said Ivie, a Los Angeles-based Christian filmmaker committed to telling stories of faith and social justice. “I walked into the room to see my wife sobbing … she’s weeping, and she says, ‘And the family forgave him.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And I just remember saying that whomever tells this story better not skip that part.”
One by one, the film, which airs nationally on June 17, the fourth anniversary of the shooting, allowed survivors of the nine slain victims to recall details of their horror.
Nadine Collier, who became famous for uttering the words “I forgive you” to Roof, sparking a global debate about forgiveness, set the tone for the film, as she recalled her mother, Ethel Lance, whose smile often greeted worshipers as an usher at Emanuel AME Church, the oldest black congregation in the South and a historic symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism.
Another survivor, the Rev. Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife, Myra, recalled never getting the opportunity to say goodbye to his wife as she left for Bible study, which she was leading the night she was killed. Thompson said Myra had a glow about her that day, and although he felt the urge to touch her, he couldn’t.
“For that husband, the pastor, to be able to say, ‘She’s already gone,’ that’s why things lined up that day the way that it did because it wouldn’t make sense any other way. That was just special,” said a visibly emotional Sonya Curry. “That just really touched me because watching my children grow up, watching how God has ordained them to do their things and seeing the doors open, seeing doors close, to me just comforted me as a mom and personally, spiritually, that God’s got us. We always say that he really does have us, and that was the moment that convinced me that his hand is in everything, always, and it’s always for the good.”
For Jeron Smith, a Chino, California, native and basketball player who transferred to Howard from UCLA, this screening was the culmination of a budding filmmaker’s dream.
“I grew up in the church,” said Smith, who is Stephen Curry’s business partner and CEO of Unanimous Media. “The film is tough to watch, right? Some families forgive while some families, conversely, didn’t. But it’s pertinent to recognize that that act of forgiveness provides us with that measure of hope.”
In moments throughout the evening, there were moans and groans from the crowd — one attendee audibly wept during a scene that showed images of the anger and pain from the local community. There was also anger in the room, particularly when footage was shown of Roof’s arrest, with police officers holstering their weapons as they approached his car in Shelby, North Carolina, and buying the shooter food from Burger King after taking him into custody.
Everyone learned later that a delayed flight was to blame for Curry’s late arrival — his Golden State Warriors were in town to play the Washington Wizards on Thursday night — but the casually dressed Curry told the crowd that he wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to “spread love, positivity and faith.” When asked by moderator Lauretta Charlton if he worries that people might say there’s no room for sports figures to send messages outside of that world, or sports shouldn’t be political, the easygoing Curry sat up in his chair and didn’t hesitate to shoot back.
“I say athletes in general are educated; people want to hear from us,” he said. “We have this platform, and if used the right way, we can empower. We have a commissioner who supports us, and we are unafraid and unapologetic and blessed to use it until I don’t have that platform anymore.”