Eight months after a jury found former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 slaying of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the Showtime network will air a new documentary about the case.
The 99-minute film "16 Shots," which director Rick Rowley hopes will be the "defining document of this moment," is scheduled for a TV debut at 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central Friday. The documentary reflects on the political fallout from the killing, which dominated Chicago headlines for years, and the historic guilty verdict.
Rowley talked to the Tribune by phone about the documentary's origins and the difficulties his team endured.
HOW THIS DOCUMENTARY CAME ABOUT
"I was in Chicago filming another project several years ago, and I met (journalist) Jamie Kalven. It was soon after the video (of McDonald's killing) had been released, and he unwound for me the story of how this whole cover-up and all of the aftermath unfolded, and it was clear immediately that it was an incredible story," said Rowley, who directed the Epix network limited series "America Divided," which included a 2016 episode that followed actor-rapper Common as he visited his hometown of Chicago after McDonald was shot to death on the Southwest Side.
Added Rowley: "We're in the middle of a national reckoning around race and justice, and it's not just Chicago. It's every major city in America. This case really cuts to the heart of all of that."
WHY THERE ARE TWO VERSIONS OF THE FILM
Rowley said he began filming in 2016. His 76-minute documentary – then titled "The Blue Wall" – premiered at a film festival in Toronto in May 2018.
"When we originally started this, we didn't have any clarity on how the judicial process would unfold. We jumped in, and we're going to finish a film in a year or so. And we came out with the film, and it was great, and it was polished. It ended before we knew anything about how the trial was going to unfold," Rowley said. "But then, once it was done, and we showed it to Showtime, and Showtime was excited about it, finally we had clarity on when the trial was going to happen. So we asked to hold on to it, open it back up again and keep shooting so that we could include the entire scope of the story."
The trial began in September 2018, and the verdict was announced the following month. Van Dyke was sentenced to 6 3/4 years in prison in January. Rowley said he filmed into February. The title of the documentary was also changed to "16 Shots," a common refrain from protesters to denote the number of times Van Dyke fired at McDonald. "It became clear that that had to be the name of the film," Rowley said.
"Sixteen Shots" is the headline of the article Kalven wrote in 2015 for Slate that challenged the police narrative of the McDonald shooting. Kalven is interviewed for the film and is listed as a producer. A WBEZ/Chicago Tribune podcast, also called "16 Shots," was a separate project.
WHO IS FEATURED IN THE FILM
Those interviewed include Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, and her predecessor, Anita Alvarez; former police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, who recently ran for mayor; former Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Pat Camden; former FOP President Dean Angelo Sr.; community activist William Calloway, who campaigned to be alderman of the 5th Ward; shooting witnesses Xavier and Jose Torres and Alma Benitez; and WMAQ-Ch. 5 political editor Carol Marin.
WHO WAS NOT INTERVIEWED
Rowley was unsuccessful in getting former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who left office last month, to speak to him.
"He never made himself available to respond, to talk about this case or what it meant or his role in it all," Rowley said. "We spent a year it feels like waiting around in his office, talking to his press people. Not only that he wouldn't talk to us, even his press spokesman refused to speak to us – a person whose literal job it is to speak to journalists about important issues of the city at the time, refused to do exactly that."
Emanuel was unavailable for comment for this story, though he has insisted that neither he nor his administration covered up the video or the shooting.
Rowley also couldn't get Van Dyke on the record, but he did speak to his attorney, Dan Herbert.
"We obviously interviewed his lawyer multiple times, and we were talking to the people who were handling press for Van Dyke, and there was interest and it seemed like there was possibility in getting an interview after the trial happened. But then once the sentencing happened, and it was clear they were no longer going to appeal the verdict, they were no longer interested in speaking," Rowley said.
McDonald's mother, Tina Hunter, has never spoken publicly about her son's death and did not sit for the film. The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald's great-uncle and a family representative; and Jeffrey Neslund, an attorney who negotiated a $5 million payout from the city for the McDonald family even though a lawsuit was not filed, are featured in the documentary.
WHAT ROWLEY HOPES VIEWERS TAKE AWAY FROM THE FILM
"What becomes visible here is just this whole machinery that makes these cases disappear and that includes hundreds of people who all, in their small ways, believe that they are just doing their job. Not just in the police department, but in the prosecutor's office, in the mayor's office, in the media, itself, in the general public. And it's only at the end (of the film) when you're able to step back and see ... this totality that we all realize that we participated in some way in the atrocity," Rowley said.
"Being able to see the whole sweep of this is an amazing thing that this case allows me to do. I just hope that when people, after watching this, when people read the next article in the police blotter in the back of the paper about a police shooting in Chicago, or anywhere else in this country, that they will take another second before they turn the page."