Emanuel (2019)

Emanuel is the sort of reverential documentary that is pointless to criticize yet hardly allows for ambivalent praise.

At the root of my ambivalence, I suspect, is the age-old difficulty of distinguishing between the an idea that is expressed and the skillfulness of the way it is expressed. It is the dilemma of a teacher giving a “C” to a student’s narrative essay about a dead grandparent or a sibling fighting cancer. It is problem of a parishioner called to discuss a sermon from an orthodox but bland pastor.

I am two paragraphs into a short review, but I already feel the need to backpedal. The tension between homiletics and exposition is not unique to preaching, but preaching is the field where most readers will likely have encountered the contradictory assertions that delivery is either everything or doesn’t matter at all.

American preaching–at least as I’ve experienced it–has always been a bit too histrionic for my taste. Popular preachers too often care more about swaying crowds to some sort of response than about building a foundation of solid exegesis. I’ve been in too many services in my life that were almost all pathos with little or no ethos or logos.

In one sense that is not Emanuel‘s problem. The film itself doesn’t emotionally manipulate viewers through technique. It doesn’t have to. The content is emotional enough. But in another sense, it is a problem that Emanuel isn’t quite up to solving–viewers don’t come to these stories without previous knowledge or experience. Some will know the story and will want or need a perspective with which to frame it. Others will have perspectives of their own that will require them (or the film) to scrutinize some of its assumptions before celebrating them.

I guess I am in the latter category. I spent half of the the film’s 70+ minutes trying to understand why I found it so much less powerful than, say, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. Both documentaries attempt to inspire viewers and fill them with awe at protagonists who forgive the most vile and hate-fueled forms of violence. In Emanuel, however, that awe always feels unambiguously reverential. In Mengele, forgiveness is presented as a messy, potentially divisive thing. Despite presenting one interviewee who says he is not ready to forgive, Emanuel never presents its conclusions as anything other than unequivocal.

But in the same vein, it seems oddly reluctant to follow a line of argument beyond its first articulation. There a smidge of the history of Charleston, but that’s more to explain why Dylann Roof’s attack was especially painful, not why it might have happened. There’s a smattering of praise for President Obama, but that’s more about why his eulogy was personally comforting than how any of his party’s policy decisions contribute to or retard the frequency of such attacks. (By contrast, Newtown integrates some of the families’ political lobbying for gun control into the stories of their reaction to personal tragedy; are those victims of trauma any less honorable or Christian than those whose response to the Charleston shooting was markedly different?) There’s some stuff about how Dylann Roof was radicalized on the Internet but nothing about who runs the sites he frequented or how we might keep others from following in his footsteps. Mostly, we are reminded of what an incredible thing it is that many of Roof’s victims forgave him.

Well…isn’t it?

Yes, it is. And, my review of the documentary notwithstanding, I have no problem with someone saying so, even repeatedly. I will say that limiting oneself to one observation, one emotion, one idea, doesn’t always make for great art even if doing so might greatly inspire a subset of the audience.

When I was an undergraduate learning about preaching and teaching, I learned that the presentations (be they sermons or films) that reached the largest audience were the ones that had elements for a diversity of listeners, not those that were reduced to the lowest common denominator. A Billy Graham crusade, for example, might be an excellent venue for evangelistic outreach, but the same thing that made it so — its being catered to an audience unfamiliar with the gospel message and perhaps hearing it for the first time — was the very same thing that might make it less suitable for a weekly sermon at a church filled with long-time parishioners.

I’ve been told that forgiveness is good. I believe it. I honor and respect those who practice it. I don’t feel conflicted about any of that. I do feel conflicted about recommending this particular expression of those ideas, though I suspect and hope that there will be some for whom the film might be encouraging.

Emanuel will get a limited theatrical release via Fathom Events on June 17 and 19, 2019.

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