Steve James, the documentary maker whose remarkable 1994 Hoop Dreams chronicled the ambitions of two African-American prep basketball players, is back on the youth beat. The title sounds more appropriate for a cheap action or sci-fi flick, but The Interrupters has a more serious purpose.
Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, James tackles the tricky social problem of youth violence, in particular the epidemic of mayhem among under-privileged young people in Chicago. In order to see the problem up close, James and his camera essentially moved into the Englewood and Altgeld Gardens neighborhoods on the city’s South Side, and the Southwest Side’s Little Village, and hung out on the streets for a full year — observing first-hand how deadly violence develops from a spark. The Interrupters is no exploitative street-fight video. Instead, the film profiles a few individuals who have dedicated themselves to stopping the killing.
Ameena Matthews is a tough-talking wife and mother whose criminal past — she’s the former gang-banger daughter of one of Chicago’s most feared mobsters (alongside Al Capone), Black P. Stones/El Rukn leader Jeff Fort — gives her street cred when she tries to get people to talk to each other instead of reaching for the gun. Also walking the streets of Englewood is Cobe Williams, an ex-con who seems to know every guy on every corner. Tio Hardiman, creator and director of the Interrupter program, knows that trying to stop bloodshed is dangerous business: “You cannot mediate conflict without confrontation.” Violence interrupters sometimes get shot.
Ameena and Cobe, as well as convicted murderer Eddie Bocanegra from the Mexican ‘hood in Little Village, work for CeaseFire, a non-profit organization founded by Gary Slutkin, a physician and social activist who approaches the problem scientifically. Slutkin explains that young people in troubled neighborhoods see violence as their disease, what they expect to die of. For him, CeaseFire’s mission is “initial interruption of transmission,” a very clinical label for what is essentially talking people out of explosive anger.
James’ camera investigates the story in the same detailed, organic manner he used in Hoop Deams. We visit a funeral and a barbershop and meet people like Flamo, a thirtysomething man itching for revenge. Cobe cools him off. Ameena, a Muslim, goes to a roller rink where her husband, Sheikh Rasheed, performs an impromptu dance routine. And “Lil’ Mikey” tries to make amends for a holdup he pulled years earlier, before he went to prison. We discover individual stories behind the sensational TV news reports. They’re people like anyone else, looking for respect but unafraid to fight and die for it. But now they’re realizing that death is getting the upper hand, and that calls for action. A popular poster shows a toddler with the message: “Don’t shoot. I want to grow up.” The Interrupters puts a human face on that, winningly.