While visiting Milwaukee for his high school reunion in 2014, Claude Motley was shot in the face during an attempted carjacking.
In the hospital, Motley tried to come to grips with what had happened to him, and with “the apathy” he saw about crime and its victims in the city he grew up in.
“You just get so frustrated that there is just no real system of attacking the situation, but just reacting to the situation,” Motley said in a recent interview.
After surgery, Motley recuperated at the house of his friend, Milwaukee filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein had been with Motley’s son, Seoul, when he learned his friend had been shot.
“I remembered just thinking to myself, the main thing is to tell him (Seoul) what happened but make sure he knows his dad is alive,” Lichtenstein recalled.
A prolific documentarian for two decades, Lichtenstein initially had no thought of making a movie about Motley’s horrifying experience. But he, Motley and Motley’s wife, Kim Motley, an international human rights attorney, began talking about how telling Claude’s story could shine much-needed light on issues of race and representation in Milwaukee.
So they decided to go for it.
“At that moment, we had no idea it would be a 5½-year filmmaking journey,” Lichtenstein said.
The result of that journey, “When Claude Got Shot,” makes its local debut at the 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday. (Movies in the festival are all online; most, including “When Claude Got Shot,” are available throughout the festival, which runs May 6-20.)
Claude Motley, Lichtenstein and co-producer Santana Coleman will take part in a virtual Q&A and will be on panels with other filmmakers during the film festival.
Three enmeshed lives
What started out as a movie about Motley’s journey ended up taking a few detours.
A couple of days after Motley was shot, the shooter, 15-year-old Nathan King, was shot himself — by a woman the teenager had tried to rob. Nathan ended up in a wheelchair, unable to walk.
“When Claude Got Shot” tells each of their stories, and shows that every crime comes with context, and that, for those affected by it, it doesn’t end after it’s a brief item on the evening news.
“There are a lot of white people who use the phrase ‘Black-on-Black crime.’ One of the things I hope this film will do with white audiences is to help them to understand why that itself is a certain kind of violence, and is racist, and how it ‘others’ people,” Lichtenstein said. (Motley, Nathan and Victoria Davison, the woman who shot Nathan, are Black; Lichtenstein is white.)
“That’s one of the problems with, frankly, the media, particularly television news, where all we see are Black bodies and police lights and yellow tape,” Lichtenstein added. ” … That’s a lot of what this film is trying to dismantle.”
The process of dismantling started with spending time with not just Motley, Nathan and Davison, but with their families.
Coleman said that during filming, she bonded with Davison and Regina Ragland, Nathan’s mother.
“I’m also a Black woman. I’m also a mother to a Black son,” Coleman said. “It was definitely an emotional rollercoaster, during the whole journey.”
A changing mindset
Motley’s challenges are front and center throughout “When Claude Got Shot.” At the time he was shot, Motley was in his final year of law school in North Carolina. After the shooting, before he was to take the bar exam, he broke his jaw, which had been rebuilt after he was shot (spoiler: he didn’t pass the exam).
But the movie’s main arc is Motley’s changing mindset — from seeking punishment to getting to forgiveness — as the criminal case moves through the courts.
Nathan’s case started in juvenile court. But after he left home detention twice, the case was waived to adult court, a move Motley supported at the time.
“My thought process (was) about taking control of the situation … ,” Motley said, recounting his mood at the time. “They were just giving it away.”
But when the sentence came down in adult court, it was much harsher than Motley had expected.
And it reinforced concerns he had going into the trial about the cycle of incarceration of young Black men — a concern amplified by the fact that, as “When Claude Got Shot” shows, Motley sees some of his own story in Nathan’s.
“I could see myself in Nathan’s shoes, taking that wrong turn making some bad choices,” he says in the movie.
The experience also led Motley to seek out a meeting with Nathan, with help from Janine Geske, former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice and director of Marquette University’s Restorative Justice Initiative.
Nathan had “already gotten his punishment,” Motley said. “He’s already got his issues.”
“We got to the point that we could really understand the relationship between Claude’s background and childhood and the journey he was on in terms of how he was seeing and viewing Nathan,” Lichtenstein said about putting together “When Claude Got Shot.” “That was really the riddle of the film to solve.”
Perils of ‘extractive’ storytelling
Lichtenstein and Motley have known each other since 2003, when they met picking up their kids at day care at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Motleys moved to North Carolina in 2008, but they return to Milwaukee each summer and spend time with Lichtenstein and his family.
(In recent years, Kim Motley also has been back in Milwaukee as an attorney, representing the families of the three Black males killed by former Wauwatosa Police Officer Joseph Mensah.)
Still, as a white filmmaker, Lichtenstein acknowledged concerns about being the person telling Motley’s story. In documentary filmmaking, there are increasing concerns about “extractive stories” — when filmmakers go into a community they’re not from and take hold of a story that might be told better, or more appropriately, by the people in that community.
To make sure the movie didn’t have that character, Lichtenstein screened early versions of the film for Black filmmakers to get their feedback. At the same time, Coleman took a demo reel out to schools and community leaders to get their reactions.
The community screenings were emotional, Coleman said.
“That’s where a lot of my tears came from, seeing people’s reactions to the film,” she said. “It really helped me see just how important the story was.”
In addition to screening during the Milwaukee Film Festival, “When Claude Got Shot,” which had its world premiere in March at the SXSW Film Festival, is part of the Wisconsin Film Festival, which is also all-online and runs May 13-20. The movie also has been optioned by Independent Lens, PBS’ independent documentary series.
For his part, Motley is working to get back to the life he was heading toward before he got shot. He had his last surgery a couple of months ago, and in July, he’s retaking the bar exam in North Carolina.
He’s also all-in on getting out the movie’s message of healing and forgiveness.
“In so many different areas in life, we see people get chances, we see people being empathized with … ,” Motley said. “I just think that if I could show that, I thought that, maybe — maybe — that could affect one person’s life.”
Watching the Milwaukee Film Festival
There are two ways to watch movies in the 2021 Milwaukee Film Festival, which runs May 6-20: via Milwaukee Film’s site, mkefilm.org/festival, and through apps available on Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Android TV. For an easy-to-follow guide, go to mkefilm.org/howtofest.
Tickets for individual films are $8, $5 for Milwaukee Film members. An all-access pass costs $175, $100 for Milwaukee Film members.