Many Americans are extremely reluctant to talk publicly about race, a topic made all the more inflammatory by the lack of honest conversation. Race is the elephant in the room we wish would disappear, even when—or sometimes, perhaps, because—the media are saturated with harrowing stories about hate crimes, civil rights violations, education inequities, voter disenfranchisement, redlining, gentrification, and racial profiling by law enforcement. In addressing the last of these issues in the new Showtime documentary 16 Shots, about the October 2014 murder of Chicago west-side Black teenager Laquan McDonald and the trial of his killer, white Chicago Police Department officer and Hinsdale native Jason Van Dyke, writer-director Rick Rowley pulls back the curtain on an institution noted for closing ranks. But by focusing primarily on the crime and its explosive aftermath and very little on McDonald himself, the filmmaker doesn’t go far enough in his indictment of the CPD’s so-termed “code of silence” because the problem doesn’t stop with cover-ups.
16 Shots is not without merit; in its chronicle of justice served it’s on the right side of history, getting the word out about events that may not be as familiar to the rest of the country as they are to Chicagoans. Rowley is a director committed to serious issues whose credits include two Frontline documentaries for PBS, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville (2018) and Terror in Little Saigon (2015), and the Oscar-nominated feature Dirty Wars (2013), in which he followed the investigative journalist and award-winning author Jeremy Scahill as he reported an exposé of covert U.S. military operations.
Dirty Wars, shot in a gritty, man-on-the-street style, was cowritten, produced, and narrated by Scahill, who is on camera much of the time; that film perforce has a very different dynamic than 16 Shots, which relies on archival footage and well-lit, artful compositions of various interview subjects to unravel a tangle of malfeasance and tragedy and the swift responses from several quarters that followed. Chief among the talking heads is local independent journalist Jamie Kalven (also one of the film’s producers), who obtained McDonald’s autopsy report through the Freedom of Information Act and revealed in a February 2015 article for Slate that the actual cause of death was 16 bullets discharged into McDonald, riddling his body from his head to his upper legs, front and back—news that contradicted the official CPD report that the teen was felled by a shot to the chest. Kalven, a soulful eminence grise with a natural screen presence, gives 16 Shots much of its authority, as well as its (for the most part) measured tone; this is a film that opts for eloquence over stridency.
Which is not to say that it is completely balanced. Although Rowley gives sufficient camera time to community organizers Charlene Carruthers and William Calloway, he gives an inordinate amount to former Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden, who right at the top says he’s very loyal to the CPD and, although retired, still feels as if he’s part of the force; for the rest of the film, he keeps toeing that party line. He’s a flack—what else would anyone really expect him to say?
Some of his screen time would have been better spent fleshing out a picture of who Laquan McDonald, the man, not just the murder victim, was. In 16 Shots there’s very little of McDonald’s personal history on offer: a few childhood photos of him early in the film, and later on some brief mentions of his troubles with drugs. A stronger sense of who he was can be found in Christy Gutowski and Jeremy Gorner’s lengthy December 11, 2015, article for the Chicago Tribune, which details his troubled family life, abuse as a ward of the state, problems in school, psychiatric hospitalizations, drug use, and drug dealing. Were the filmmakers concerned that inclusion of this information would disrupt their narrative? To me, this background only makes him more human, more than another shooting statistic.
The fact that the circumstances of his upbringing match those of so many other young Black men in Chicago adds to, not detracts from, a forthright conversation about race. Having some knowledge of McDonald’s life makes it all the more horrific when the film shows former Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo complaining, “I don’t see anyone willing to admit that what we have to do is go after that monster, the guy that doesn’t belong on the street with you, with my wife, with my daughter. This is not an Ivy League college kid we’re talking; we’re not talking to an Oxford scholar.” I hate to break it to Mr. Angelo, but I’ve known several educated, well-heeled drug addicts, most of them white, at least one with a $50,000-a-year coke habit, and none of them ever got murdered for using. McDonald may have been a drug user and dealer, but might not the greater crime be the cultural and institutional racism that boxes young Black men in, and then sets them up for target practice?
Another problem the film has is its suggestion as if it were fact that Rahm Emanuel decided not to run for reelection due to mounting pressure from outraged community activists. He made his announcement one day before Officer Van Dyke’s trial was to start, which was almost three years after the dashcam video showing Van Dyke killing McDonald was released. But let’s not forget Rahm’s earlier less-than-stellar performance during his two terms in office, as Ben Joravsky has written in these pages. Emanuel is made of Teflon; it’s more likely he jumped, rather than was pushed out. Like many a politician he has spent his career yo-yoing between public service and the lucrative corporate private sector, and he already has landed new gigs as a pundit for ABC News and the Atlantic and will open a Chicago office for the Wall Street investment firm Centerview Partners LLC.
One last quibble I have is a missing statistic: the number of upstanding, heroic Chicago policemen who lose their lives each year protecting others. That would have helped explain Van Dyke’s purported fear of being bodily harmed by the knife-wielding McDonald. It would have put the loyalty that cops have for each other in the context not just of corruption (although corruption certainly does exist), but in the deeper, wider context of men who have one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable and so watch each other’s backs. A measure of justice has been served by Van Dyke’s conviction for second-degree murder. But no amount of posthumous justice will bring his victim back. Laquan McDonald deserved a better life, and he deserved a better memorial than a dashcam video, or, for that matter, 16 Shots. v