The Interrupters | Film review
The director of Hoop Dreams returns to Chicago to shine a light on urban peacekeepers.
You wouldn’t guess it, with all the talk of flash mobs and turf wars, but violent crime has actually declined in Chicago these past few years. In 2010, the homicide rate dipped lower than it’s been since 1965. With the stirring new documentary The Interrupters, director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and journalist Alex Kotlowitz (There Are No Children Here) offer one potential cause: CeaseFire, the UIC-based org that sends unarmed civilians to mediate urban conflicts before things turn violent. (They’re not out to dismantle gangs, just to stop the killing.) Kotlowitz wrote the 2008 New York Times Magazine article that inspired the film, and both of the Oak Park–based creators are in their element here—on the mean streets of the Windy City, where the two men composed, in the early ’90s, their respective nonfiction opuses.
Over a single year, James and Kotlowitz tag along with three of CeaseFire’s “violence interrupters,” all former gang members using their clout in the community as peacekeeping leverage. Cobe Williams, the resident nice guy, disarms hotheads with his eternal patience and congeniality. Soft-spoken Eddie Bocanegra, plagued with remorse over a murder he committed many years earlier, has the Zen calm of a reformed foot soldier. And then there’s “golden girl” Ameena Matthews, a onetime drug enforcer and the daughter of infamous Chicago kingpin Jeff Fort. She’s a force of nature—barreling headfirst into conflict, delivering fiery common-sense sermons from her street-corner pulpit. When she talks, everyone listens.
For two engrossing hours, we get to know these tireless activists, who speak candidly of their personal lives and professional tactics. To be effective, they have to act as both performers and amateur psychologists, a point James shrewdly underlines. A natural storyteller, the director also knows a dramatic centerpiece when he stumbles into one; a barbershop apology late in the movie is more powerful than anything you’ll see in a fiction film this year.
A sprawling mosaic of urban life, The Interrupters lacks the sheer scope of Hoop Dreams, but its sense of novelistic density and characterization is comparable. By the end, you’re left wondering not if James is editing around failed interruptions—Illinois CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman’s visit with a hospitalized colleague dispels such suspicions—but whether his presence actually boosted the mediators’ success rate the year he filmed. Did having a camera constantly rolling help defuse potentially violent situations? Here the line between passive documentation and active involvement blurs. With the film raising CeaseFire’s profile not just in Chicago but all around the country, might we suggest James and Kotlowitz add “honorary interrupter” to their list of credits?