‘When Claude Got Shot’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

The morally murky consequences of a shooting in Milwaukee are examined in this documentary about justice, urban inequality and mercy, executive produced by Snoop Dogg.

Hollywood likes shades of gray mostly in very black-and-white terms. The virulent racist who becomes a civil rights supporter. The raging narcissist who turns into a giddy philanthropist. The former criminal evolved into a community organizer.

The reason you probably won’t see anybody attempt a narrative remake of Brad Lichtenstein’s documentary When Claude Got Shot is that its shades of gray can’t easily be transformed into starker colors.

The Bottom Line

Interesting without being fully involving.

This is what makes When Claude Got Shot consistently engaging and frequently provocative, but maybe also a little frustrating. Lichtenstein’s take isn’t completely bloodless, but it’s certainly muted on subject matter that maybe required more spark.

Of course, when I pitch the movie to you, the spark of curiosity is unavoidable. It’s a movie that literally begins with a man getting shot in the face. Claude Motley, a law student and former Milwaukee resident, is back in his hometown for a reunion. He drops a friend off and when he’s getting ready to leave, he’s victim of an attempted carjacking in which a bullet goes through his window and, among other things, shatters his jaw and puts his life in jeopardy. Thankfully, he was close enough to an emergency room to get quick treatment and he’s OK, albeit the type of OK that requires countless additional surgeries and incalculable psychological damage.

Claude can only describe his assailant based on his hair. But he soon learns that the shooter was part of a group behind a string of recent stickups and that the shooter was, himself, shot by Victoria, a nursing student who used her own firearm to avoid being victimized in another incident. Oh and the shooter, Nathan, was only 15.

The story progresses on a number of parallel tracks. Claude’s recovery, accompanied by his badass attorney wife Kim (who could be the focus of a more gripping documentary) and loving family, is an ongoing work in progress and it complicates the family’s economic circumstances and Claude’s professional plans. Meanwhile, Victoria is scarred by the action she had to take and by the public perception of a heroism that she doesn’t feel. Then there is the legal wrangling around Nathan, who is potentially paralyzed for life.

It’s all tied together by Milwaukee’s history as one of the country’s most segregated cities, Claude’s past growing up in a white neighborhood his strict father tried to integrate and the fact that the city’s wildly disproportionate incarceration of young Black men has had no impact on its crime rate. Does one man, one victim, have the responsibility or capacity to change things? Can one case hope to have an effect on growing chasms in economic and educational opportunity?  How, if you’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and holding off bill collectors at the same time as you’re going in and out of the hospital in need of constant procedures, can you find it in yourself to be forgiving, to prioritize mercy over vengeance?

The hint to the answer to those massive questions is that it’s not a straight line. Claude being compassionate and even being able to see himself in his young shooter — whose background isn’t what anybody in the documentary expects — doesn’t translate into an immediate transformation into a dogged public defender (or any of the things that might happen in the ABC drama pilot version of the story). And Nathan being treated with signs of empathy and forbearance doesn’t prompt an immediate course of restorative justice and a righteous life. And Victoria, having nearly killed a young man in clear self-defense, neither pours herself into medical charity nor vigilantism.

For 94 minutes in When Claude Got Shot, people struggle and they struggle in basically the ways you probably would struggle in similar extreme circumstances. It’s a nonstop reminder that whatever your initial “What would I do if this were me?” guesses might be, your answer probably wouldn’t include, “I would be crippled by doubt and uncertainty for five years.” There are fights and courtroom scenes and tears are shed, but Claude is an astonishingly mellow center to the story — however clear his internal torment — and Lichtenstein hasn’t cracked a perhaps impossible mystery of how to make this much ambivalence cinematic. The answer, incidentally, is almost never “boring reenactments,” though the recreations here are kept close to a minimum.

Lichtenstein’s placement within the documentary is another mystery. The director is in the backseat of Claude’s car just days after the shooting, when there would have been no reason to expect the story to have a documentary in it. Shootings in Milwaukee are, after all, tragically commonplace. The answer, I discovered only later from the press notes, is that Lichtenstein is close friends with Claude and that he was actually with Claude’s son when the news of the shooting broke. You wouldn’t have any inkling of his personal connection to the figures featured in the documentary or their journey. One can easily understand why the director — white and not tied to Milwaukee himself — would prefer fly-on-the-wall observation to thrusting himself into the narrative, but it’s never quite clear if the distancing and coldness here are aesthetic choices or overcompensation.

It’s the difference between When Claude Got Shot being interesting (always) and involving (only occasionally). Or maybe I’m just unaccustomed to being immersed so completely in gray.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director: Brad Lichtenstein
Producers: Steven Cantor, Brad Lichtenstein, Jamie Schutz
Executive Producers: Snoop Dogg, Ted Chung, Leslie Fields Cruz, Geralyn Dreyfous, Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen
Cinematographer: Colin Sytsma
Editor: Michelle Chang
94 minutes