'16 Shots': Film Review

Courtesy of Showtime
A tragic and sadly familiar story, grippingly told.
6/7/2019

Rick Rowley's documentary chronicles the aftermath of the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old black teenager by a Chicago police officer.

One of the more distressing things about Rich Rowley's documentary is how familiar it is. The film recounts yet another story of a fatal police shooting of a black suspect that was later proved to be unwarranted. But rather than being resigned to the idea that this is the new normal, viewers of 16 Shots will likely feel a fresh sense of outrage. The film is receiving a limited theatrical release before airing on Showtime on June 14.

The title refers to the numbers of gunshots suffered by 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. McDonald, who had PCP in his system and was carrying a knife, was suspected of attempting to break into vehicles at a trucking yard. Several officers responded to the call and found McDonald walking down a nearby street. He ignored instructions to drop the knife and was walking away when Van Dyke shot him. After McDonald fell to the ground, Van Dyke continued firing, shooting him 15 more times in as many seconds.

We know this is how it happened because the 2014 incident was captured on a police dashboard-cam video that was released, perhaps by mistake, and subsequently made public. The footage is showcased late in the film, and it makes for very harrowing viewing. "What we saw was, in our opinion, a first-degree murder," says a lawyer for McDonald's family. Massive citywide protests by outraged citizens ensued, and Van Dyke was eventually put on trial and found guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to a mere six-and-a-half years, becoming eligible for parole in three. In the aftermath of the controversy, the Chicago Police Department's superintendent was fired, the state attorney lost her bid for re-election and Mayor Rahm Emanuel changed his mind about running for a third term.

What's shocking is that these events began happening more than a year after the shooting, which was initially deemed justified by the Chicago Police Department. The actual circumstances surrounding the shooting were initially covered up by the police, who bullied witnesses and even seized a surveillance tape from a nearby Burger King and erased 86 key minutes. Van Dyke initially claimed that McDonald was rushing toward him waving the knife, but that was discounted by the video evidence. It turns out that during his 13-year career, the officer had faced no less than 20 allegations of misconduct, but had never once been disciplined.

The film delivers its gripping account in clear, suspenseful fashion and includes news footage from the time and contemporary interviews with many of the principal figures involved (Van Dyke, for obvious reasons, is a notable exception, as is Emanuel, although we do see the former tearfully testifying at his trial). Freelance journalist Jamie Kalven, who covered the story extensively and is one of the film's producers, figures prominently, as do several activists and community leaders. We also hear from some police representatives, including Pat Camden, a former spokesman for Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police, who steadfastly defended Van Dyke's actions.

Considering that the film's running time is padded out with what appears to be endless aerial shots of Chicago's streets, it seems curious that we learn very little background information about either Van Dyke or McDonald. The filmmaker's intent was obviously to concentrate on the specific incident and its aftermath, but personal details would probably have enhanced the overall emotional impact. Nonetheless, 16 Shots is a worthy addition to what has sadly become a proliferating documentary subgenre.

Production: Showtime Documentary Films, Impact Partners, Chicago Media Project
Distributor: Showtime
Director-screenwriter: Richard Rowley
Producers: Jacqueline Soohen, Jamie Kalven, Karim Hajj
Executive producers: Jacqueline Soohen, Vinnie Malhotra, Michael Bloom, Lisa Leingang, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Ken Nolan, Brian Kenney
Directors of photography: Richard Rowley, Karim Hajj
Editors: Jacqueline Soohen, Francisco Bello
Composer: Brian McOmber

93 minutes