No stranger to inner city life (Hoop Dreams) or the way communities pass down and reinforce pathologies (Stevie), documentarian Steve James turns his attention to Chicago inner-city violence in The Interrupters, where the CeaseFire organization is trying a new method to increase the peace: sending community members—many of them former gang members and ex-convicts—to altercations in progress, or to the homes of potentially violent offenders, with the goal of preventing mayhem instead of breaking up gangs or interfering with criminal activities. Focusing on three diverse but equally dedicated "interrupters," James keeps viewer attention the whole time, despite forcing unnecessarily sentimental music on his footage and chopping his scenes down to dramatic highlights rather than letting them play at length. Still, those very concessions to convention may help bring in a decent-sized audience.
James begins in the middle of a street fight: footage that's raw and exciting, if not all that different from the numerous videos of brawls constituting one of YouTube's mainstays. The difference is intent: James comes not to gawk guiltily but to wonder how it can stop. Enter CeaseFire, an organization founded by Gary Slutkin, an M.D. specializing in epidemiology who compares cyclical violence to his field of study. The solution: sending people into violent or potentially violent situations to nip them in the bud.
James focuses on three people with very different approaches. Ameena Matthews is the most flamboyant of the three: while in interviews she's matter-of-fact about her upbringing (father Jeff Fort was a gang leader, and Ameena followed in his footsteps for a long time), when she's on the street her rhetoric turns deliberately dramatic, with incantatory pauses and evangelical flourish. In contrast, Eddie Bocanegra is soft-spoken and hands on: rather than facing down entire crowds like Ameena does, he works one-on-one. Cobe Williams is the most patient: as he notes, before you can convince someone not to retaliate you have to validate their complaints by listening to them.
Their methods work in unique ways: while Ameena is comfortable at the center of crowds, Cobe's mild-mannered persuasion pays off in the case of Flamo, introduced with a drink in hand and revenge on his mind. Cobe convinces him to calm down and not retaliate against a neighbor who called the cops on him (Flamo agrees to go for a cool-down ride after putting up his gun), and by the end Flamo's found a job and left behind the cycle of violence. For Eddie 'Lil' Mikey' Davis—returned from a jail term for a barbershop robbery—this is a similarly personal project; Mikey's return to the barbershop to apologize lingers as a moment when token gestures of regret actually connect.
The Interrupters has understandably been cut down multiple times, from its initial duration of 160 minutes to 142 minutes and now 125—what we gain in the chopping is terse dramatic points, what we loose is a sense of space; these scenes can't stretch out or breathe. The film demonstrates CeaseFire's program on an anecdotal rather than systemic level: despite a briefly shown PowerPoint presentation on results, this is more a street-level view than an argument on behalf of CeaseFire's efficacy as a model for other cities. Still, it's hard to deny the narrative pull of his film, which is mostly worthy of the seriousness of the problem.
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Director: Steve James
Producers: Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz
Running time: 125 min.
Release date: July 29 (NY)