The Interrupters ****
Directed by: Steve James.
Most people join gangs so that for once in their lives they can feel like they belong to something greater than themselves. They often come from homes with abusive or absentee parents. They fool themselves into thinking that being part of a gang makes them important and tough. By the time they grow up, and realize what they were doing was stupid, it’s already too late for many of them. They are in jail or dead. Violence erupts on streets dominated by gangs for no real reason – someone insults you or a rival gang member walks down the wrong street and violence erupts, which simply leads to that other gang coming back and more violence erupting. It’s a never ending cycle of violence where too many young men and women in America are being killed for no real reason.
Steve James, who directed the magnificent documentary Hoop Dreams in 1994 (that film would still make my list of the 10 greatest docs of all time), returns to the streets of Chicago with The Interrupters. Based on a magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, who made this film alongside James, it follows the year in the life of people who work for CeaseFire – a group of violence “interrupters” who work the streets of Chicago. These interrupters are former gang members who have done jail time – some very serious jail for crimes like murder. They know precisely where these young gang members are coming from, because they went through it. Now they are older and wiser – and see the error of their ways, and try to prevent others from making the same mistakes. They go out onto the streets and try to defuse violent situations. Often times, violence breaks out on the spur of the moment, and if they can just settle things down for a little while to give everyone a chance to think about their actions a little, then lives can be saved.
James and his small crew show no fear when making this documentary. They are right alongside the interrupters when they go to work – and step right into the middle of violent situations. If the young gang members even notice the camera, they don’t seem to care – they go about doing the same thing anyway.
Do the interrupters really make a difference? Somewhat, I’m sure. We do follow a few of the lives of the people the interrupters reach out to, and one man, named Flamo of all things, goes from wanting to kill someone when we first meet him, to having an actual job by the end. Another young girl continually gets angry and screws up her progress, and has to start all over again. But Ameena Matthews, who is the interrupter handling her, doesn’t give up. She’ll allow her to screw up again and again – because you cannot help people who won’t help themselves – but she’ll always be there when she calls and needs help. Still other young people we only see once in the movie and they say things to the interrupters like “You just don’t understand” or “Not everyone thinks the same way”. These are the ones who are going to do what they’re going to do no matter what. One interrupter calls what they are doing little more than band-aid for a crime epidemic in this country. If so, it’s still better than nothing.
What stands out most to me about the movie is the interrupters themselves. These are people who have led violent lives, and somewhere along the way, have decided to change their ways. Someone like Ameena Matthews has embraced religion – she’s Muslim – and is raising her kids up right, and wants to give others the same chance. Her father was one of the most famous Chicago gang members in history – still serving time in jail, where he’ll never get out. Cobe Williams, another interrupter, recalls when his son came to see him in jail, and never wanted to go through that again. Eddie Bocanegra spent 14 years in jail for murder, and while in jail found art, and no tries to help other express themselves that way. He is still haunted by the life he took – and one of the most powerful sequences in the movie is when he revisits the scene of the crime.
The Interrupters turns its camera on what is a national problem of gang violence, where young men and women are killing each other for little or no reason. The movie says that more people are killed by this sort of violence every year than the numbers of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. I remember when school shootings like Columbine made national headlines, and everyone was asking could be done to stop them, when the whole time more young men and women were being killed in the inner cities due to gang violence than would ever die in school shootings, and nothing was being done to stop it.
Are the interrupters just band-aids? Perhaps they are, as gang violence is still rampant in the streets of America’s major cities. But at least they are doing something, and some lives are definitely saved because of their actions. That’s better than sitting back and doing nothing.