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A New Documentary Brings the Laquan McDonald Shooting Into Focus

While Chicago followed the Van Dyke trial proceedings with bated breath, director Richard Rowley was there catching the whole thing on camera.

Jason Van Dyke with his attorney, Daniel Herbert, during the trial.   Photo: Getty Images

The murder of Laquan McDonald and subsequent trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke changed Chicago and riveted the nation. Now, a documentary directed by Richard Rowley about the shooting and its fallout is set to air on Showtime June 14.

A filmmaker, producer, and director, Rowley is best known for his 2013 film Dirty Wars, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and the docu-series America Divided and Documenting Hate: Charlottesville.

In 16 Shots, Rowley sits down with the major players in the story and lets them speak for themselves, not using voiceovers and not putting himself in the film. Among those interviewed are McDonald’s uncle Marvin Hunter, former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and current State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, independent journalist Jamie Kalven, activist Will Calloway, Van Dyke’s attorney Daniel Herbert, former Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) president Dean Angelo, and former FOP spokesman Pat Camden.

One notable exception? Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who many have speculated attempted to cover up the shooting and who chose not to run for a third term in the spring. Last week, I asked Rowley why the mayor was a no-show.

When did you know the Laquan McDonald story would be your next project?

I was working in Chicago on a television project three and a half years ago, and I met Jamie Kalven. I interviewed him about some of the work he did with the Police Accountability Project, and he told me about this case. At the moment we’re in right now — this moment of national reckoning around race and justice — these are the most important kind of defining stories.

But none of these other cases are like Laquan’s case. We know more about this police shooting than is known about any other police shooting in history. It’s not just the videos, it’s the whistleblowers and the civilian witnesses and all of the great reporting that was done by Chicago-based reporters, and the consistent pressure from social movements that forced transparency. This case, unlike any other, provides a window in which you can see at a granular level the way that the machinery works that makes these kind of cases disappear. After talking to Jamie then, I knew this was the most important story that I could be telling now.

It’s a 90-minute film and it’s such a huge, complicated story. Did you consider making a series?

We definitely did. It’s a story that spans years with many facets. But a series and a feature have different powers to them. A series is sustained engagement with an audience, but nothing really has the focused impact as a single 90- to 120-minute feature film. It delivers the whole story in one package. I felt in the end that it would be the most powerful way to tell this story.

Did you attend the trial?

Yes. We were filming outside, there was a pool camera inside [the courtroom]. I got to sit in on a couple of the hearings but mostly was watching the pool feed. Were you there for any of the trial?

Yes, I was.

The reading of the verdict was one of the most amazing, emotional public experiences that I’ve ever had. We had the pool feed inside the court and we had a camera outside the courthouse. I was in front of City Hall. The way the whole city was gathered around their television sets and their cell phones and in front of City Hall when the verdict was read, everyone was weeping in the street around me. You felt that a historical threshold had been crossed for the city and for the country as well. It was really an amazing moment.

Director Richard Rowley. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

You’re not from Chicago. How did you approach coming into the city during a very tense time?

I was really happy that so many people agreed to speak to us. People were remarkably willing to speak with incredible openness and candor about their position on this… All of the primary characters were remarkably open to speaking. The one institution that was incredibly paranoid and closed and resistant to any kind of transparency was Rahm Emanuel’s administration at City Hall.

He was the one big player that you didn’t interview. I’m guessing you tried to get him?

Oh my God, we spent over a year talking to his office. We met with his press people in City Hall multiple times and it’s just sort of astounding. This is the defining moment and story of his tenure — a story that transformed the city in ways that will be felt far after his administration is forgotten — and he refused to think about it.

What was his major objection?

They don’t give objections. They just refuse to speak. And not only did he refuse to speak, his press people refused. A person whose literal job it is to speak to the press about issues that are important to the city refused to talk about the most important story in the city at the time. I’ve dealt with bureaucracies all over the world and I’ve never seen anything like that administration. Not only that, but they also tried to sabotage our work in all sorts of ways. They prevented any active police officer from speaking to us. When we filmed the police graduation ceremony, they even barred us from bringing all our equipment in out of sheer spite. 

I don’t want to make it seem that I believe Rahm Emanuel is an evil human being that’s responsible for this whole thing. He definitely had a role to play. Really what the film attempts to show is how, at every step of the way, people are committing small acts and believe they are doing their job. It’s only when you pull back and see it in its entirety that everyone realizes that they participated in this atrocity.

The same is true for the Mayor. He’s not orchestrating this whole thing: He’s playing a position in this machinery that makes these cases disappear. I don’t think he’s at the center of this conspiracy; he’s just another cog in it.

Did being an outsider give you an advantage?

I don’t know if it mattered. I’m not sure because I can’t compare it to another experience. One of the things I’m proud of in the film is the way that you hear both sides speak to what they believe their truth is with total clarity and what emerges is people living in completely different worlds.

You employed a very interesting style in this film: There were no voiceovers and very little words on the screen. That’s on purpose, correct?

Absolutely. We are so polarized now and shielded inside our own information silos, we thought it was incredibly important to have everyone articulate how they read this incredibly important moment that we are in. And both sides say things that would appall the other side.

Depending on your point of view, some people may not come off so well. One criticism of letting everyone speak for themselves may be is that they aren’t challenged. Do you trust the audience to judge for themselves?

They are definitely challenged — they’re challenged by the other side. There’s a scene where Dean Angelo says, “It’s not like this was an Ivy League college kid we are talking about," and then immediately [activist] Charlene Carruthers responds, “He could have been wearing an Oxford sweatshirt and it wouldn’t have made a difference." Garry McCarthy says, “The first three reports that come back from a scene are generally wrong, did you know that?", and Christy Lopez from the DOJ responds, “Yeah, they could be wrong, but these are all wrong in exactly the same way." No one goes unchallenged on either side, but everyone speaks their piece.

There are so many poignant moments in the film. If Laquan’s uncle Marvin Hunter didn’t ask the funeral home to take pictures of the body, we may not be having this conversation right now. If the eyewitnesses bowed to police pressure and changed their stories, we may not be talking. What was the most poignant thing for you?

You’ve touched on it. The Chicago Police shoot someone 30 to 60 times a year, so every week or every other week. Over the course of our lifetime, that’s thousands of people. We don’t know the names of all but three or four of them, maybe.

At every point in this process, everyone involved has every reason to believe that this case will end like those thousands of other cases: It will just be forgotten. And it’s only because of dozens and dozens of moments where people act in a way that break through this type of silence. It’s Marvin Hunter having pictures taken of the body. It’s the whistleblower in law enforcement calling Jamie Kalvin and telling him that he needs to look into this case. It’s Will Calloway deciding to sue the city for the [dashcam] video’s release. It’s civilian witnesses who refuse to give in to fear. Every one of these steps takes an act of bravery.

Protesters on October 5, 2018, the day of the verdict. Photo: Chicago Tribune

When Rahm Emanuel first saw the tape has been widely speculated on and debated. In the film, Anita Alvarez, who was Cook County State’s Attorney when the incident happened, guesses that Mayor Emanuel saw it before her, and says she saw it two weeks after the shooting. What’s your feeling on that?

I don’t know if Rahm Emanuel is lying about when he saw the video, or if he’s being deeply, intellectually dishonest by pretending he was unaware of the nature and severity of this case before that. We know that he had the tape. We know that all his senior staff members saw the tape, were concerned about it, and were talking about it over email, because we have the emails. We know from Gerry McCarthy and senior members of law enforcement that they were discussing and working on [it]. We know his lawyer, the corporate counsel for the city, gave $5 million in a settlement in the final days of Rahm’s campaign to prevent the video from being released during the election.

So, did someone on his team tell him, “Look, you don’t want to see this video,” and so he didn’t see it but knew what it was about? Maybe that happened, but it doesn’t even matter. It’s clear that he could not have not been aware of it. For him to pretend he wasn’t is just dishonest.

If the city didn’t give Laquan McDonald’s lawyers the video — and it seems in the film that it was almost by mistake — is there any chance they would have settled for $5 million?

Carol Marin talked [in the film] about how there have been cases about torture that dragged on for decades without the city settling. For this, there wasn’t even a case file — they settled before there was even a lawsuit to settle. If you look at the language in the settlement, it actually said if Van Dyke was not charged criminally within a certain number of months after the settlement, then they would be able to release the video. So, the city knew that all they were doing was delaying the video’s release until after the election.

I read one of Rahm Emanuel’s recent interviews. Pretending they’re a paragon of transparency because after a judge forced them to release the video, they decided not to appeal — that’s your example of transparency? That’s completely laughable.

You don’t get into the nuts and bolts of the trial. We don’t learn anything about the judge, we don’t learn much about defense arguments pointing out that Laquan swiped at the windshield and tire of police vehicle with his knife before reaching Pulaski, the defense contention that he was heading toward a Burger King with innocent people inside… Nor do you show the animation from the defense that was shown at trial that purported to show Van Dyke’s point of view.

We had the whole trial laid out and moments that felt like turning points. We have different reasons for each one of these. The animation was a just a total failure, according to everyone on the jury. It was just ridiculous; it looked like a first-person shooter game. Even Jason Van Dyke said in cross-examination that it didn’t represent his perspective of the shooting. The defense thought that was an ace in the hole, but I think it actually backfired on them. There’re a lot of other details that weren’t turning points for us.

On the flip side, you do have people talking about the fact that he had PCP in this system, but no one points out, as prosecutors did during the trial, that Van Dyke did not know that and thus was basically irrelevant.

Yeah, totally. I think what that illustrated is the way that one of the first tactics of the defense in many of these cases is to try to put the victim on trial. And Herbert explicitly does this, saying this story is about Laquan McDonald.

There’s that amazing moment in the film where Herbert throws the police department under the bus —

That was an amazing moment. We’re interviewing him and we say, “We see the video, and there are these [conflicting] police statements afterwards. What’s up with that?” Herbert says, "I will certainly admit that not everything in the police statements appears in the rest of the evidence. There’s an effort to make everything look as good as it can before the trial." He basically says [that’s] a standard practice in the Chicago Police Department to make their civil litigation easier.

It’s an amazing moment, and he says it with such a deadpan, you kind of don’t realize how incredible what he’s saying is. And this is a person who was a Chicago Police officer before he became a lawyer for police, so he’s been a part of the process his whole life.

You interviewed him twice?

Yes, we interviewed him before the trial and then after. We did multiple interviews with a few of the subjects and it’s very interesting to see them change. In his first interview, he’s upbeat and optimistic and says he has a good shot to win. Then, in his second interview, he says he’s lost faith in justice. Same with Dean Angelo. You can see the toll it’s taken on him.

What will a national audience take from this film?

I think this story captured the national imagination as well. Because we know more about this case than any other police shooting in history, it gives us a unique window into all of the processes at work. I go from the first officers that respond to the scene to the union, to the media, to the prosecutors, to the politicians at City Hall… You really see in one case an entire system revealed. Right now in New York, you have the Eric Garner trial. This case speaks to issues that the entire country is dealing with right now.

16 Shots airs June 14th on Showtime.

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