August 12, 2011
In its charting of a Chicago epidemic and belief in the power of street-level human empathy, the superb documentary "The Interrupters" comes to us at a time when the notion of conflict resolution has been sidelined utterly on the national political level.This is why every member of the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, the White House and the tea party, let alone anybody simply interested in meeting some complicated and remarkable Chicagoans, should see the film. It chronicles genuine conflict resolution that appears to get results — politically savvy, consensus-building results — one difficult day at a time.
In some ways this is a richer portrait of Chicago, race, class and sociology than the same filmmaking team's beloved "Hoop Dreams" (1994), which began with an establishing shot of the downtown skyline, from the South Side perspective, bookended by a similar shot in this new film's coda. Director Steve James' documentary began as a 2008 New York Times Magazine piece (by Alex Kotlowitz, the producer, along with James, of "The Interrupters") on the activities of CeaseFire Illinois, part of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention founded by Dr. Gary Slutkin. An epidemiologist, Slutkin studied infectious diseases such as AIDS and cholera in Africa and elsewhere, and believes street violence is a public heath concern foremost.
Slutkin pops in and out of "The Interrupters," as does the CeaseFire Illinois director, Tio Hardiman, a born promoter who, beginning in 2004, assembled teams of outreach workers made up of ex-cons and former gang members. The so-called "violence interrupters" take no sides either in gang wars or in single, retaliatory acts of brutality. They don't work for the police. Rather, they mediate what and with whom they can, putting themselves in the middle of life-and-death scenarios of unpredictable duration, attempting to talk rageful citizens with murder on their minds out of becoming another statistic.
The beating hearts of the picture belong to three interrupters in particular: Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, Eddie Bocanegra and the most compelling single figure I've seen on screen this year, Ameena Matthews. A charismatic combination of tough love and improvisational psychotherapist, Matthews is a mother of four, a Muslim, a former gang member and the daughter of gang leader Jeff Fort, now in prison for drug trafficking and terrorism charges. "You're too handsome to be doing that!" Englewood native Matthews says to a young man who, as the camera follows discreetly but close behind, tells her he gets into fights, sometimes bad ones, nearly every day. Elsewhere Matthews reflects on joblessness, abuse — all sorts of reasons so many young men and women find themselves flying from "zero to rage in 30 seconds."
The film covers a year in the life of the city and the interrupters, and contains several acts of contrition and redemption, along with instances of dead-end frustration. The uplift, when it comes, does not come easily or tidily. These people are shadowed by their own pasts, and through their present actions, they're trying to put those pasts a little further behind them.
One rarely gets the sense that anyone is amping up their act for the lens.
The film's musical score rides in at the expected moments, cuing the expected emotions. There's scant context in "The Interrupters" regarding outside and skeptical opinions on the program's place in the community, and the general results. Small matters. See this one before it airs on "Frontline" next year; it's too vital not to be seen this year.
No MPAA rating (language)
Featuring: Ameena Matthews, Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Gary Slutkin.
Credits: Directed and photographed by Steve James; produced by Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James. A Cinema Guild release. Friday through Aug. 25 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 2:05
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