directed by Steve James
by Angelo Muredda There's a bracing moment late in Steve James's new documentary The Interrupters when a host of Chicago neighbourhood teens pay their respects to Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old beaten to death in a gang skirmish outside his school. Fidgeting in their pews and adjusting their hats (for the camera?) at his memorial service, they take in their surroundings as if, as one commentator opines, they're at a dress rehearsal for their own funerals. The Interrupters is full of such alarming insights. A fly-on-the-wall chronicle of a year in the life of three so-called violence interrupters, it puts us on the frontlines of a number of intense encounters on Chicago streets without losing sight of the generational crisis that undergirds each of these potentially shattering exchanges between kids who don't expect to live past 30. Both James and producer Alex Kotlowitz, whose NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE article on the violence-prevention efforts of an organization called CeaseFire inspired the film, ensure that the stakes are high; the camera frequently catches ephemeral stuffed-animal memorials, charting a haunted path through marked playgrounds and bus stops. If the filmmakers' subdued reverence for their protagonists sometimes keeps them from fully exploring their complex subject, the result is nevertheless a devastating polemic about retraining fatalistic teens to think of themselves as having a future.
CeaseFire founder and epidemiologist Gary Slutkin sets us up early on, claiming in an interview that violence is an infectious disease that must be stopped on a behavioural level. Enter the titular interrupters. It's a curiously apolitical thesis for the sociologically minded director of Hoop Dreams to espouse, but the film more or less uncritically advances it, thankfully without abandoning James's usual interest in the intersections of urban violence and systematic poverty, racism, and unemployment. A more palatable rationale is nevertheless provided by Tio Hardiman, the rhetorically polished, Svengali-like director of the Illinois branch, who, surveying a conflict that quickly escalates from family insults to hurled rocks, offers that the job is not to cure violent offenders of their behavioural illness so much as to "give them a moment to pause." To that end, we follow the interventions of livewire Ameena Matthews, teddy bear Cobe Williams, and Zen-cool Eddie 'Bandit' Bocanegra, each of whom have come to terms with their own criminal pasts.
Their outings with at-risk teens range from crushing returns to sites of violence to less charged discussions over manicures, and the film's formal vacillation between capturing these episodic moments and fitting them into a more definitive seasonal narrative sometimes flattens the work of the interrupters into a series of house calls while giving disproportionate weight to events that take place in the spring, signalled by mundane signposts like blooming flowers and high-school graduations. Yet even when the narrative mechanics are suspect, the subjects, particularly Ameena, are engaging. The daughter of crime royalty and a former gang enforcer in her own right, Ameena commands the screen as she commands the attention of the disaffected youths with whom she's paired. Her monologues, which veer from prophetic rants about the future of America's youth to impassioned defenses of Islam as a kind of detox program for the fallen, are practically a master class in oratory, and James is keyed into the messianic power of good talkers in getting through the defenses of inarticulate, angry youth. He's equally attentive to the opposite approach espoused by the much more reserved Cobe. If Ameena gets through mainly to the inexpressive, calm listener, Cobe is best paired with loquacious types like Flamo, a raging, fiercely intelligent young man whose flashes of gallantry--at one point, he delicately and apologetically snuffs out a joint in Cobe's car--suggest a Renaissance courtier out of time.
One wishes, however, that the film itself weren't so square. Gutsy as his subjects are, James is reticent to probe the psychology of people like Ameena and Cobe. Though it's tasteful of him to keep from criticizing the allegedly "scientific theory" behind CeaseFire's approach--what's critical in stopping violence, one interrupter says with total sincerity, is the "initial interruption of transmission"--tasteful is not necessarily what's called for here. Indeed, this slippage between the pseudo-scientific and evangelical tone of these dynamic men and women, who think of themselves as (and may well actually be) lifesavers, draws us in, then goes largely unexamined. Their brash faith in the cause begs for a less timid approach than the unambiguous triumphalism on display; it needs an acknowledgement of not only the addictiveness of such Good Samaritan work for recovering addicts, but also its particular redemptive appeal for violent offenders like Eddie. "We currently got an incident right up front," one interrupter eagerly announces in the middle of a board meeting, and the energy in the room recalls nothing so much as Annie Potts's Janine shouting "We got one!" in Ghostbusters. There's a movie there, but it isn't The Interrupters.
Ultimately, James seems uninterested in the possibility that his dedicated and well-meaning subjects might be both lifesavers and ambulance chasers; he's (understandably) too invested in finding some springtime righteousness in their work to go there. "That caused her to feel, so she acted out on old behaviours," Ameena insists after one failed encounter, and you wonder if there's any structure in place to mitigate such exhausted, last-ditch appeals to pop psychology, lest embittered workers give up on their charges and fall back on Dr. Phil truisms. ("Please Don't Give Up On Me," the film responds a little too patly, offering up Solomon Burke's song over the closing credits.) Still, this is strong stuff. In the movie's epilogue, Flamo cannily asserts that he "wants to be one of the ones telling the story;" in its finest and most affecting moments, The Interrupters ditches its formal conceit and allows him just that. Originally published: October 7, 2011.