Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein was nominated for a News & Documentary Emmy Award for the Independent Lens/PBS film As Goes Janesville, which was about a blue-collar town struggling to renew itself. His documentary Messwood was about a high school football team made up of kids from two different communities—one suburban and white, and the other urban and Black. His empathetic eye lets his characters tell their own stories.
In When Claude Got Shot, Lichtenstein essentially collaborated with his film’s subject Claudiare “Claude” Motley, a friend from well before Claude went through the horrific event at the center of the documentary. Motley was visiting his hometown Milwaukee when the law student was shot in the face by a 15-year-old boy attempting to carjack Motley’s car. The effects of this gun violence upend Claude’s life, yet he still finds himself torn between punishment and mercy. The central struggle of the film is how—or even if—a person can forgive an attacker after getting to know the attacker’s own history.
In that spirit, Brad and Claude collaborated on an interview with each other here to really dive deeper into why they wanted to tell Claude’s painful but powerful story together, what it meant for Claude to see his story on screen, and what they taught each other. The film’s “star” also asks the filmmaker how he felt, as a white filmmaker, telling a story so intimate to a Black man on a subject so important to the Black community.
As far as how Claude is doing as of this moment, he writes, “I am doing well. Right now I am working with The League as we structure an impact campaign to use the film to move people to actionable solutions to gun violence and spotlight the need for community-based solutions to crime. I am also working with our law firm on many civil law and immigration cases.”
Read on for a conversation between filmmaker and subject:
Brad: Why did you want to make this documentary and share this story?
Claude: The main reason I wanted to share my story is because of my love for Milwaukee, and all my family and friends that reside there. I am very familiar with the struggles of living in one of the most segregated cities in America, along with the environment that creates. Gun violence has always been one of the most devastating ills suffered by my community. My goal was to let people see me as a person, not as a news story, a headline, or a statistic.
After surviving the shooting and driving myself to the hospital, I didn’t want people to see me as a victim, but as a survivor willing to do what I can to effect a change. I wanted to document my journey as one testament to the experience of gun violence, and the resiliency to deal with its effects. Also, I wanted to show with enough compassion and understanding [that] I would be able to find forgiveness in my heart.
Brad: What was your feeling when you learned that your shooter was a 15-year-old boy?
Claude: When I found out that the person who shot me was 15, I was shocked, saddened, and angry. Before the shooting, I was able to get a glance at Nathan when he got out of the car. I knew from his body type that he was young, but I did not anticipate he was that young. I understood that Milwaukee poses many threats, but I would have never thought I would be almost killed by the hands of a child.
I was mad at everyone involved. My thinking at the time was, what type of city would allow children to be out on crime sprees without intervention or repercussions to curtail their behavior. Yet, at the same time I also found out about his condition after being shot, and it hurt me that the bad choices he was making almost caused him to lose his own life. The frustration of experiencing this vicious cycle of pain and violence that almost claimed two lives in two days was overwhelming.
Brad: Can you talk about the tension you felt between wanting to hold Nathan accountable and your desire not to feed into an unjust system that incarcerates so many young Black boys and men?
Claude: I had a lot of apprehension about the judicial process from the very beginning, even though I was the one looking for justice. The speed in which they had a suspect for my shooting raised my suspicions, although Nathan was caught by good police work. Still, the inequities of the judicial system are well documented. Milwaukee is the worst city in the nation in incarcerating black males, with 1 out of 8 working-age black men in prison. The constant fear is that this institution has lost sight of the purpose of the prison system to rehabilitate its prisoners.
Instead, many men have had numerous years taken away from them during vital times when they could be upstanding contributors to society. While Nathan was in the juvenile court system, I felt that the circumstances did not address the severity of Nathan’s actions. This was proven by the multiple violations of his conditions. Once in adult court, I was concerned about finding a balance point between punishment and rehabilitation versus revenge in the name of society’s interest. Although my sentence recommendation was only taken into consideration, I felt it was important to speak to the idea of consequences with compassion and [be] given the opportunity to change.
Brad: You talk about forgiveness in the film, Claude. What does forgiveness mean for you and in this context?
Claude: The concept of forgiveness is taught to us as a response to an apology, but we soon learn it is a much more complex theory depending on the pain inflicted. The physical and psychological trauma I suffered was devastating, but I had to understand the circumstances of my situation. There were many failures that contributed to me being shot, and Nathan was not responsible for all of them. Nathan apologized for his actions and has been suffering through the consequences. As a child, that was all I could ask of him, and the rest of his debt he owes [to] himself to become a better man.
Aside from Nathan’s actions, I’ve had to refocus myself on the contributing factors that cause a child to have the ability to pick up a gun and commit such a horrible crime. I knew my healing would come as I positioned myself to effect changes to some of the issues that cause gun violence in my community.
Brad: Can you describe what you felt when you finally watched the documentary, which took five years to make?
Claude: It is hard for me to describe the emotions I had watching myself on the screen. I never saw this project to be about me, but a story of three lives intertwined by a series of unfortunate events. I even fought with [you] on the title of the film. Watching the film brought back a flood of emotions. Highs and lows, triumphs and failures, but a willingness to continue to fight.
Through all my struggles the constant love that was shown to me was overwhelming. I approached this as one story out of thousands that needed to be heard, but the amplification of my voice on that screen was humbling. But the main thing I thought after watching that film was “man, that was a lot of Claude.”
Brad: What do you think the process of making the film taught you about yourself?
Claude: While making the film I found out many things about myself. The first thing is that I am a very lucky man. I have a wonderful, loving family and great, reliable friends. Deep down I’m a good person, but I always have to work on being better. Self-reflection is a tough pill to swallow, and I have no shortage of flaws and shortcomings. Still, I have the courage to stand for what I believe in and the ability to fight for what I know is right.
Brad: What are your feelings about this story being told by a white filmmaker?
Claude: To be honest, I never thought of it that way. You and I have been friends for years before the shooting. My son was staying with your family at the time of the shooting and you had to tell Seoul that I was shot in the face. When that bullet left that gun it hit a person and I felt that was the main focus. Gun violence is wreaking havoc within a community, but it is tearing apart a whole society.
The issue can only be cured if society as a whole recognizes and prioritizes the problem of gun violence and all its contributing factors. You and I have always been on the same page in telling this story due to communication, empathy, love, and trust. I hope these are some of the tools that can be taken from the film to correct some of the ills of gun violence in our society.
Brad: What do you hope people who watch this movie will do with what they’ve experienced and learned?
Claude: I hope that anyone who has watched this film will change their minds as to the complexity of gun violence. The film touches on a multi-facet set of issues. How we approach a problem and formulate a solution all starts with our perception of the facts presented to us. Only when we can bring compassion and empathy to the subject matter and humanize the issue can we act passionately in solving the problem. Once a person finds that passion, I would hope they will act.
Support the families that fall victim to gun violence. Get behind movements that attempt to close the gap in education, employment, poverty, and overall family stability. Support movements that attempt to correct the inequities in our judicial system. Finally, support efforts to get the guns out of the hands of people who are irresponsible and unable to make choices to prevent the tragedies that we had to experience.
Brad: Finally, it was a long process and a very intimate film. What made you feel you could trust the filmmaker with your story?
Claude: Trust is not given but earned. When you and I met at our kid’s daycare center I was very vulnerable. Not only was I sitting on a two-foot chair with my knees in my chest, but I didn’t have much trust in a whole segment of society. You and I began this journey of trust years before the shooting, and it was built brick by brick. After hours of conversations over good food and a lot of scotch, a friendship was formed based on understanding and shared ideals. Due to the intimacy of the circumstances, there would not have been a film if that foundation of trust was not established before the first shot.
↩︎ [turning the tables, Claude interviews filmmaker Brad] ↩︎
Claude: At what point after the shooting did you feel that the circumstances had the potential of becoming a documentary?
Brad: Honestly, I think right away. I remember talking to your wife, Kim, as she was in the process of heading home from Afghanistan about this. I remember thinking, let’s just get you well, but that there’s a story here. To be completely honest, I think I was a little in shock—I had never known anyone so close to me to have been shot. My filmmaking reaction is almost as natural as my friend reaction, both are who I am. So, in a way, I’d say right away.
Claude: Were there any points during the five years of creating this film that you felt it just might not get done?
Brad: No, I never felt that way. There were times when I was frustrated, mostly over money and needing it to finish. And there was a very frustrating chapter when an editor we hired didn’t work out. But I always felt the film would be finished, at some point.
Claude: Considering your relationship with me, what were some of the challenges you had making this film that was different from your other documentaries?
Brad: I pledged to myself and then to you that I’d be open and honest completely every step of the way. That was easy to do, considering our relationship, except at the point when I began to see how Nathan’s story fit in and how I wanted to humanize him as well as you and Victoria. I don’t think you were ready to fully see him and I felt like I was abandoning you as a friend sometimes by talking about him. But we got through it!
Claude: As a person with a history in civic awareness and rights, what type of insight did this film give you on gun violence and its devastating relationship with the African American community?
Brad: I think I already understood the impact of gun violence on the community from producing [radio series] Precious Lives, but it was abstract. While that project was emotional it wasn’t about people who were close friends. I didn’t feel their pain the way I felt yours, especially seeing the toll the shooting had on your career and life goals, the way it set you back. I know you as such a striver and it broke my heart to see you suffering.
Claude: As a white filmmaker, how did you feel telling a story that is so intimate to a Black man on a subject matter so important to a Black community?
Brad: I feel uncomfortable. I am deeply aware of the issues around representation of stories and power. If we were not close friends, I’d have no business telling this story.
Of course, that sentiment and position butts up against the notion that artists have the license to tell all kinds of stories and should be held to account in how responsibly they do it. I am and was aware of my whiteness all the time and tried hard to listen carefully and check myself. At the end of the day, I do believe that I was the right person to tell this story for a simple reason; our friendship allowed us to trust each other.
Claude: What message do you hope people will receive when they watch this film?
Brad: The theme is growth. I hope audiences see what you learned and how you changed over the course of your ordeal. I hope for the same when audiences watch Nathan’s story. I hope that I’ve humanized an issue that for many is difficult to grasp or that they approach with many biases. I hope that the film opens people’s eyes to the true costs of gun violence—the harm that is done to survivors and shooters. And I hope the film not only drives awareness of the problem, but leads people to solutions like investing in our young people as a prevention strategy, investing in comprehensive prevention strategies that address violence before it escalates or becomes a police matter, and interruption programs.
When we hear “defund the police,” I feel, the question is “then what?” The answer is to invest in prevention.
Claude: What did you learn about yourself creating this film?
Brad: So many things. I think I reaffirmed that one of the gifts I have is this ability and opportunity to tell stories and that the simple truth I must always return to is to do it to the best of my ability. That’s the best thing I can do for others, especially you. I learned about perseverance watching you get through so much turmoil and always feel resilient even in your most down moments—that helped me find the motivation to keep going because there were periods when this film was without money and direction.
While I’ve been tuned into racial segregation since I was a boy, I think I learned how profoundly unfair American society is as I lived life so close to you and saw how many of your Black friends and family have experienced gun violence and how removed from it my white friends and family are.
The same is true of prison. I questioned my own right to make this film when these stark differences felt present and worried I was too much of a voyeur since I have the privilege to walk away from the trials of the world I was filming, but you actually always inspired me to lean in instead.
With every film, I learn to hear my creative voice more clearly and there are examples in the film where I really learned to trust that voice, like with the way we ultimately succeeded in showing your parallels with Nathan and how that motivated your struggle in balancing accountability with forgiveness.
Honestly, this is a tough question because I think what I treasure so much about the career I’ve chosen is that I am always learning, so long as I try.
A Path to Forgiveness Complicated by Race and Justice: A Conversation with Claude Motley and Brad Lichtenstein | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Craig Phillips for www.pbs.org