The Interrupters friends-and-family screening
If there was any doubt that tonight's South Side screening of The Interrupters was, as billed, a friends-and-family premiere, after the movie ended, one of the stars publicly thanked his aunt for doing the catering.
A crowd of more than 200 can eat a lot of rib tips. That touch contributed to the homecoming atmosphere at the I.C.E Chatham 14, where Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's remarkable documentary—easily the Chicago film event of the year—screened for those closest to the movie.
The choice of a Far South Side venue near the communities shown in the film made sense. The documentary chronicles the operations of three "interrupters," former gang members who work in the city's high-crime neighborhoods to stop violent encounters and reprisals before they happen. They're just a few of the heroic, street-smart staffers at CeaseFire, an organization that operates out of UIC devoted to curbing violence.
A portrait not just of urban tragedy but of community values—and the power that empathy commands where law enforcement has failed—the film has played the festival circuit since first showing at Sundance in January. But introducing the screening, James (Hoop Dreams) called tonight’s event the “true premiere.” The film opens in Chicago August 12 at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N State St) and moves to the I.C.E. Chatham 14 (210 W 87th St) and the I.C.E. Lawndale 10 (3330 W Roosevelt Rd) August 26.
One-armed hugs were doled out all around. Ameena Matthews, the most animated of the interrupters and a daughter of legendary Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, arrived dressed in a bubblegum-pink hijab. With her was an entourage of Muslim men in red turbans, including her husband; they often accompany her on CeaseFire missions.
“The great thing about this is that 20 blocks from here, we spent a lot of time with the interrupters,” James told us shortly before heading in. He downplayed the heroics involving in filming in such close proximity to volatile encounters. “Having a camera and being white guys in that neighborhood, we’re probably safer than anyone else in that neighborhood,” he says.
Journalist Kotlowitz, whose New York Times Magazine article on CeaseFire served as the inspiration for the project, added, “We hope this film reaches people who otherwise wouldn’t have reason to venture into places like Englewood, but we really are determined to get this film out into communities that are grappling with violence, whether it’s in Chicago or other cities.”
Cobe Williams, an interrupter who works in Englewood and Auburn Gresham, agreed that it was great to see the film show on the South Side. “It’s good, cuz it’s in the ’hood,” he says. “And that’s good because it’s where we work."
Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, got a rock star’s welcome. “The film is giving CeaseFire the chance to show the world that we’re the real deal when it comes down to saving lives,” he said before the screening. Looking out over the parking lot, he spotted a CPD cruiser, and reflected on the organization’s uneasy relationship with the city’s crime-fighting establishment, something touched on in the film. “I don’t know why the police are riding around here,” he told us. “[CeaseFire is] up and down with the police department. I don’t know why they came out here. Sometimes our relationship is real good, sometimes it’s not good. I’m looking around and I’m not too crazy about the police right now.”
The packed audience included family members of the interrupters as well as those who had lost loved ones to street warfare, notably Anjanette Albert, mother of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old whose fatal beating in September 2009 was captured on camera. The incident became an international symbol of urban violence. “I don’t think that’s his legacy,” Albert says. “I wish he was still here with us, but I hope [the movie] can save another child or six more children because my family lost a lot.”
The film has raised not only CeaseFire’s profile, but that of its participants. “It’s put me in a more professional field, as opposed to just being looked at as an ex-felon trying to stop some guys from hurting each other,” says interrupter Eddie Bocanegra, an ex-convict who served 14 years for murder and now monitors Little Village and parts of Pilsen.
One of the beneficiaries of CeaseFire’s methods, 19-year-old “Lil’ Mikey,” who now goes by Michael Davis, has an emotional moment in the movie revisiting a barbershop he held up at gunpoint, an incident for which he served prison time. “It felt good seeing the transformation from what I was to what I am,” he told us after the film. “Seeing it was more emotional than living it.” He’s now a CeaseFire outreach representative.
Also in attendance was CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin, a UIC-based epidemiologist who has advocated the notion of stemming violence by treating as one would a contagious disease. Talking to us, he drew a distinction between eradication and elimination. Few viruses are wiped out completely, he explained, but many are brought down to very low levels. He points to success in Logan Square, which he says went from a rate of 30 murders per year to one, as an example of that.
Asked if the film will catch on in the communities it covers, Matthews doesn’t mince words. “If the bullshit on Discovery that my dad is in sells, this can succeed,” she said with a laugh. “This is real life. This is real as hell.”
Update, July 29: Hardiman called us to clarify his remarks.