Title: The Interrupters

Directed By: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz

Cast: Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, Tio Hardiman, Gary Slutkin

Screened at: Broadway, NYC, 7/12/11

Opens: July 29, 2011

It is said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. If we go back to the time that these two events had not occurred, a liberal is one who would probably say that we should concentrate on rehabilitating offenders, making the term “correctional institution” actually true; while a conservative might want to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Most people might find themselves midway between the two extremes.

On exhibit in Steve James and Alex Kotkowitz’s documentary “The Interrupters” is a third way to deal with crime. Stop it before it even happens! This procedure was indeed tried in Chicago during a recent crime wave, one that did not necessarily involve fights over drug territory or robberies but over the need that some inner-city residents felt for revenge. It’s the old story: “He looked at my girl,” or “She gave me the finger.” Young people, especially, do not walk away from such indignities, as an intelligent adult might do. The population to target, then, is impulsive youth, itching to kill those believed to have dissed them. The method: move in, talk to the dramatis personae before they commit their offenses, and thereby head off the crimes before they start.

Steve James, best known for his doc “Hoop Dreams,” a film that follows two African-American boys whose dream is to play college basketball on the road to being professionals, and Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote the book for the TV movie “There Are No Children Here” which stars Oprah Winfrey, gained the trust of inner city youths and adults alike by spending an entire year capturing 300 hours of their lives, later edited down to a mere two hours and twenty-four minutes of running time. Since the case studies are mostly of incidents in which the titled “interrupters” break up fights before they get out of hand, we get the impression that the technique they use as part of the organization CeaseFire-founded and still directed by Dr. Gary Slutkin-enjoys succeess. Dr. Slutkin, an epidemiologist who worked with TB and AIDS in the U.S. and in Africa, believes that people of good will should use the same techniques to head off violence that doctors use to fight disease.

While an extensive array of people is on exhibit, the principle “actors” captured by director-producer-cinematographer-editor Steve James’s lenses, each paid little more than $28,000 a year, are Eddie Bocanegra, himself rehabilitated after serving 14 years in prison for murder; Ameena Matthews, a Muslim mother of four children who dad is in prison for drug trafficking and terrorism charges on behalf of Libya; Cobe Williams, veteran of three trips to prison for drugs and attempted murder; and Tio Hardman, a former drug addict and hustler. Obviously if you want to gain the trust of fragile people intent on doing wrong, it pays to have been in their shoes at one time.

Some characters stopped from turning to the wrong side of the law and others who have already spent time in jail are the more entertaining parts of the film when compared to the endless meetings and speechifying that CeaseFire volunteers endure (but don’t expect even a modicum of the fun value of a Michael Moore or a Morgan Spurlock here). One young gent out after three years in jail for robbing patrons of a barber shop does his Christian duty to redeem himself by visiting the scene of the crime and delivering heartfelt apologies. Another is a woman prone to fights with men, who breaks parole rules by putting off attendance at school where she hopes to earn a GED. Yet another emerges full of fury from his modest home in the Englewood section of Chicago with no fear of the camera trained on him and his interrupter. He announces a plan to gain revenge on someone who disrespected him, stating that he needs only to go inside to get his gun.

Archival film deals with some of the violence in Chicago’s past, one in which twenty people are killed in a single day-chicken-feed when compared to what’s going on today in Mexico but tragic especially when you consider that anticipated killings often have nothing to do with drug-related territorial disputes or robbery. While at least one reviewer found that every second counted, that the movie needed the full 125-minutes’ running time, much that we see is repetitious even considering that “The Interrupters” was cut from 300 hours to about 2-1/2-leaving over 99% of the copy on the metaphoric cutting room floor. The film offers grounds for optimism, particularly if other cities would adopt the theory (have they?), a presentation that is educational, informative and enlightening at the expense of what we usually call entertainment.

Unrated. 144 minutes + credits. (c) 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online

Story: B

Acting: A-

Technical B

Overall: B+

The Interrupters

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