Steve James’ The Interrupters tells the story of Chicago’s CeaseFire organization, a group of activists who are attempting to reduce inner-city violence through a potentially dangerous approach: they seek to intervene in the midst of conflicts as they are happening, quite literally interrupting people before they commit a violent act. Their methods are certainly controversial, but the film seems to show that in many cases, the group is able to stop people from acting rashly, and in some cases, to provide them with an alternative to the gangs and violence that are damaging their community.
The film documents a year in the life of the organization and follows three principal interrupters, Cobe, Ameena, and Eddie, all of whom have backgrounds in street gangs. Ameena, in fact, is the daughter of a well-known gang leader, and although their histories command respect with many of the youth in Chicago, the Interrupters also gain power through their commitment to helping others. We follow the three of them over the course of one year, as they insinuate themselves in a variety of potentially violent situations and, in some cases, work to form relationships with the people they help. The film opens with one such conflict, with Ameena stopping a teenage boy who plans to avenge a violent act. Ameena successfully takes him away from the situation, and we begin to see that in many cases, the people who commit these violent acts are often reluctant and, in some sense, are waiting to be stopped from acting.
This is most evident with “Flameo,” a young man who is threatening to get revenge. He tosses his phone angrily, yells, curses, but when Cobe starts talking him down, he begins to slow down. When Cobe offers to take him to dinner, he stops for a beat: “You mean right now.” Cobe responds, “yeah, right now.” And this simple gesture gives Flameo enough time to check his anger. We also see situations where the Interrupters struggle to help people break bad habits. Ameena spends countless hours trying to counsel a troubled teen, Caprysha, often with limited success. Eddie works with local schools in order to use art projects to reach troubled youth, creating a bond with a Latino family who lost a teenage child to gun violence. There is also a powerful scene when a teenager goes back to a barbershop he robbed in order to apologize to the victims, and it’s difficult not to get swept up in the emotional lives of the people whose lives we follow. Cobe, Eddie, and Ameena are all reflective about their past lives, the wrong choices they have made, and we seem to be constantly patrolling the city, riding in cars as the Interrupters seek to break up yet another conflict.
In many ways, the film reminded of Steve James’ breakthrough documentary, Hoop Dreams, in its grand-scale structure and its Chicago setting. The documentary gains remarkable access not only to the CeaseFire group but also to the lives of the many people they encounter. James also has a talent for capturing small gestures–characters nervously twitching their fingers, for example–that reveal a lot about the characters’ emotions. In places, the film did seem to run a little long, and the film did raise some important questions for me. Although there were some elliptical references to the negative effects of gangs–one Interrupter remarks at a funeral that most of the teens are wearing red, a local gang color–The Interrupters could have been a little more forceful in addressing some of the larger systemic causes of violence. Overall, though, it is a challenging and engaging documentary, one that should be used to deepen our conversations about how to reduce violence.