Q&A: Brad Lichtenstein and Claude Motley, of ‘Independent Lens: When Claude Got Shot’

April 25, 2022 Alyssa Beno Leave a Comment

Director Brad Lichtenstein

In Milwaukee, a 15-year-old boy attempted to carjack law student Claude Motley and shot him in the face. Through multiple surgeries and catastrophic health care bills, the effects of gun violence upend Claude’s life. 

Yet he still finds himself torn between punishment for the young man and the injustice of mass incarceration for Black men and boys. Can he find mercy in his heart for his attacker?

PBS Wisconsin invites viewers on a five-year journey through Motley’s recovery in Independent Lens: When Claude Got Shot. Directed by Motley’s friend and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, the film is also the topic of an all-new Director’s Cut episode airing this month. 

Lichtenstein and Motley will join Director’s Cut host Pete Schwaba for a conversation about the film at 8:30 p.m. Monday, May 9. Independent Lens: When Claude Got Shot premieres at 9 p.m. Monday, May 9 on PBS Wisconsin and on the free PBS Video App. 

Ahead of the premiere, Lichtenstein and Motley interviewed each other about the process of creating the film and what they hope viewers learn from it.

Motley: At what point after the shooting did you feel that the circumstances had the potential of becoming a documentary?

Lichtenstein: 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.

Lichtenstein: Why did you want to make this film and share this story?

Motley: 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 I would be able to find forgiveness in my heart.

Lichtenstein: What was your feeling when you learned that your shooter was a 15-year-old boy?

Motley: 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.

Lichtenstein: 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?

Motley: I had a lot of apprehension of 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 one out of eight 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 his 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 being given the opportunity to change.

Lichtenstein: You talk about forgiveness in the film. What does forgiveness mean for you and in this context?

Motley: 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 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.

Lichtenstein: What are your feelings about this film’s story being told by a white filmmaker?

Motley: To be honest, I never thought of it that way. Brad and I have been friends for years before the shooting. My son was staying with Brad’s family at the time of the shooting, and Brad 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 the society as a whole recognizes and prioritizes the problem of gun violence and all its contributing factors. Brad 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.

Motley: As a person with your 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?

Lichtenstein: I think I already understood the impact of gun violence on the community from producing 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.

Motley: Considering your relationship with me, what were some of the challenges you had making this film different from other documentaries?

Lichtenstein: 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!

Lichtenstein: What do you hope people who watch this movie will do with what they’ve experienced and learned?

Motley: 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.

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