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Flicks - The Interrupters
The Interrupters 11/10/20 3:01
Flicks - The Interrupters
Steve James' stirring documentary examines a Chicago program in which ex-criminals step into potentially violent situations on the streets in order to defuse them and help people walk away. Violence in the inner cities is the problem, and a commitment to ending the cycle of hatred and revenge is the solution, in The Interrupters, a powerful new documentary by Steve James. Still most renowned for his 1994 film Hoop Dreams, which also examined poor minority communities, James immerses us in his subjects until we experience them as lived rather than merely talked about. Here the story is a nonprofit Chicago initiative called CeaseFire, which uses outreach to try to halt street violence. Its most original strategy is the use of so-called "violence interrupters," former criminals and ex-cons who have turned their lives around and now put themselves in harm's way to intervene in potentially explosive situations and try to talk people down from going violent.
The film doesn't downplay the overwhelming odds facing these interrupters. Chicago's murder problem is almost legendary, and there are certain neighborhoods which we get to know in the film in which young people aren't expected to make it past their 20s. But rather than have voice-overs discussing the issues or presenting statistics, the film focuses on the interrupters themselves, three in particular: Ameena Matthews, daughter of one of Chicago's biggest gangsters, herself a crime lieutenant until she got shot, converted to Islam, and now intervenes in the lives of at-risk youth; Cobe Williams, an ex-con with an easy-going manner, who in one very moving sequence accompanies a young man just out of prison as he goes to apologize to the victims of his robbery; and finally, Eddie Bocanegra, a young Latino man who did 14 years for murder and now does violence prevention work with kids as part of his amends. There are also excellent scenes involving the program director Tio Hardiman running meetings in which the interrupters and outreach workers share their perspectives on how to handle violent situations while taking care of oneself.
The street cred of the interrupters makes them more likely to be listened to than if they were outsiders. The film also reveals the life-stories and inner lives of these three people in vivid and heart-wrenching fashion. We can see the deeply ingrained problems of economic injustice, racism, addiction, and the rage that all this inspires—CeaseFire doesn't attempt to solve these problems, nor to mediate conflicts between people. They go beyond the rights and wrongs of the situation to simply counsel non-violence as the only path with a future, working with people one at a time. It's to James' credit that he doesn't attribute magical results to the group. We learn to know the grief and suffering as much as the hope.
As usual in documentaries of this kind, one questions how much the presence of the camera determines what you see. Steve James believes that this can be an important part of a truthful experience, and indeed the behavior in the film seems genuine, raw and heartfelt. One comes away from The Interrupters with a sobering awareness of the tragedy of kids killing other kids, and also a deeper belief in the ability of human beings to turn around and become agents of healing.