In the Middle
by Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Steve James, U.S., The Cinema Guild
In The Interrupters, a valuable yet seemingly incomplete documentary, director-producer-cinematographer-editor Steve James (the codirector of Hoop Dreams) and producer-interviewer Alex Kotlowitz (the author of There Are No Children Here) shadow three â€śviolence interrupters,â€ť all of them employees of the Chicago-based organization CeaseFire. The goal of the interruptersâ€”themselves all rehabilitated gangbangersâ€”is to â€śsave a life,â€ť largely by attempting to short-circuit the impulse toward retaliatory action (they seem to have made a specialty of counseling those likely to plot revenge killings) through carefully calibrated real-talk. â€śYou have to immerse yourself in the bullshit,â€ť says CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman of the work. In their admiring (though certainly not sanitized) portrait of three interruptersâ€”Ricardo â€śCobeâ€ť Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, and Ameena Matthews, the daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fortâ€”James and Kotlowitz dutifully show the extent of that â€śbullshit,â€ť which encompasses not only senseless gangland brutality but also the ingrained hostility of many young adults in rough-and-tumble Chicago neighborhoods like the Ville and Altgeld Gardens. â€śFuck a problem, fuck a solution,â€ť says a hothead named Flamo during one of the filmâ€™s many high-pressure talk-downs. Some of the filmâ€™s other most searingly intense passagesâ€”like CeaseFire school visits in the wake of the death of Derrion Albert, whose beating with a large wooden board was caught on video and posted to YouTubeâ€”underscore the immensity of the challenges facing the interrupters.
But this is certainly not a film about futility and hopelessness. By the end of the movieâ€”which an opening title card announces as â€śone year in the life of a city grappling with violenceâ€ťâ€”Flamo has gotten a job as a uniformed attendant at the Racine stop on the Blue Line. An interrupter is also present as a class-X felon named Lilâ€™ Mikey apologizes to the owner of the barbershop he robbed years earlier, a coming to terms that becomes the filmâ€™s most bracing moment; Mikey also eventually finds employment, as a groundskeeper of sorts for a local child-care center (James also observes him tucking a kid in at nap time). The film stops short of proffering violence interruption as a catch-all solution to the problem of inner-city bloodshedâ€”other subjects, such as Caprysha, a troubled teen Ameena takes under her wing, seem responsive to the interrupters, only to revert to delinquent behaviorâ€”but it is deeply invested in showing, on both a scene-to-scene level and through these bigger-picture character arcs, that inner-city violence is a problem about which something can be done.
CeaseFireâ€™s approach is depicted here as almost scientifically preciseâ€”rather counterintuitively so, considering the delicate interpersonal dynamics involved. As the film lets the organizationâ€™s epidemiologist founder explain, CeaseFire takes the idea of violence-as-plague quite literally: Gary Slutkin appears briefly, speaking of combating the gang-violence infection by cutting it off at its source. This public-health party line seems to trickle down. The head-scarved Ameena in particular goes about the ground-level work with an almost surgical precision. Her street-corner sermons about leading an exemplary life are high-wire theater of extraordinary persuasiveness. She demands respect, and receives it, with exactness and efficiency. Tio describes the mother of four as a â€śgolden girlâ€ť; her husband gives voice to his concern that every day sheâ€™s putting it â€śall on the lineâ€ť out there.
It is essentially inarguable that the violence interrupters are doing good work, but the filmâ€™s portrayal of them suffers from some imbalances. The Interrupters too often feels like a promotional reel for CeaseFire in its rather uncritical relating of the organizationâ€™s guiding philosophies. Certainly there would be some divergence of opinion on how to deal with a rash of violence like the one that erupted in Chicago in 2009 and 2010, but no dissenting takes are thoughtfully exploredâ€”other than the deployment of the National Guard, an idea floated by two area politicians that causes no small uproar in the communities most convulsed by violence. The documentaryâ€™s hardest-hitting questions come during a one-off behind-closed-doors CeaseFire presentation, where an attendee from South Africa asks whether the work of the interrupters ever causes conflicts with law-enforcement officials. James and Kotlowitz seem to have taken Slutkinâ€™s assertion that his organization is â€śnot in the good and bad gameâ€ť to mean that its work is entirely unimpeachable. Even if public officials (glimpsed only briefly in city press conferences) or outside experts were to corroborate this, or to provide a few additional facts about the scope of the problem CeaseFire is confronting by degrees, The Interrupters would be a more evenly shaped documentary.
Imbalances aside, in isolated glimpses of neighborhoods struggling to contain their downward-spiral turmoil, The Interrupters is wrenching. Jamesâ€™s cinematography is also consistently fine for this type of on-the-ground documentaryâ€”as during a tour of makeshift shrines, flanked by empty bottles of Hennessy; at one of these memorials a photo of the deceased catches the wind and flips over to reveal a message: â€śTo Shane, We Will Miss You.â€ť As a film about the functioning of an institution, The Interrupters often plays like an advertisement, but James and Kotlowitz excel at collecting devastating particulars. Itâ€™s when it bears witness to individual stories of reform in progress (Lilâ€™ Mikey finally taking responsibility for his crime, or the interrupters performing their rituals of atonement for past misdeeds) that The Interrupters best makes its own case.