Title: The Interrupters
Director: Steve James
“Hoop Dreams” co-director Steve James returns with another tale of Illinois-set woe and striving for self-betterment in the form of “The Interrupters,” an affecting if sometimes also emotionally wearying documentary co-produced with Alex Kotlowitz, whose 2008 “New York Times Magazine” article serves as the movie’s inspiration. A selection at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the film tells the story of an innovative organization working to stem the rising tide of murders in Chicago.
The nonprofit group Ceasefire was founded in the late 1990s by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who characterizes inner city violence as a learned behavior and compares it to the infectious diseases, like AIDS and tuberculosis, he spent more than a decade in Africa battling. With significant success, they recruit ex-gang members to serve as sort of neighborhood mediators, pouring cold water on hot tempers and nipping interpersonal conflicts before they turn violent. Getting kids expressly out of gangs decidedly isn’t their agenda, a factor that sometimes puts them at odds with police.
The movie’s Ceasefire subjects — particularly Ameena Matthews, the married, Muslim-convert daughter of a legendary gang kingpin, and Cobe Williams, who worked for seven months for no pay at the organization when it at one point lost its funding — are interesting case study snapshots in and of themselves of the evolving human condition, and how lives can be turned around through a combination of opportunity, focus and positive reinforcement and reward. If there’s a sometimes uneasy tension elicited in the gulf between their rather unorthodox methods (“That’s what gangsta is all about!” yelps Ameena at one point, attempting to make a point and score credibility with a group of troubled, gang-affiliated kids) and the enormous open-heartedness of their efforts, well… that’s what “The Interrupters” is all about — showcasing an assertive, all-hands-on-deck outreach approach to close the gap of more traditional police work that has brought little relief to a city weary of burying too many of its young and innocent.
At its most anthropologically interesting, “The Interrupters” makes the case that most of Chicago’s violence and murder isn’t gang-related, per se. Yes, it may be committed by gang members, or those with some loose affiliation, but those bonds stem from deep-seated socioeconomic and racial feelings of being ostracized by society. Ergo, middling interpersonal conflicts — he disrespected my girlfriend or friend, she stole my jacket, he owes me $20 and won’t pay me back — get stoked into grander conflagrations because people are simply trying to exercise some degree of dominance over their surroundings, where they typically have very little or none. It’s a fascinating conceit, but one that James — even at a running time of just over two hours — doesn’t devote enough to fully developing.
Instead, “The Interrupters” merely charts Matthews, Williams and others as, over the course of a full year, they strive to reach out to volatile and hotheaded at-risk kids, and impact their lives positively. The use of the word “merely” in the preceding sentence seems harsh and pejorative, which isn’t meant to be the case. That charted course is engaging, and sometimes quite moving, especially by the end. But the film’s objectivity and emotional remove — it doesn’t pander by providing pat answers to the tough situations it documents — also, ironically, leaves “The Interrupters” feeling somewhat episodic, and an audience feeling frequently a bit wanting. James, though, is doubtlessly unconcerned; he has, after all, poked through a viewer’s humdrum haze, interrupting their routine and reminding them that there exists a grey and very complicated world in desperate need of workable solutions, not ideological posturing.
Written by: Brent Simon