The Interrupters opens with credits over black and a news anchor’s voiceover from 2009 announcing that, in Chicago, “One hundred twenty-four people have been killed so far this year—one per day—about the number of Americans killed during the same period in Iraq and Afghanistan.” So when the people living on these mean streets constantly refer to their neighborhood as a war zone, it’s without an ounce of hyperbole. And this incredibly apt analogy also extends to the documentary’s director, Steve James, who is credited alongside author Alex Kotlowitz, who penned The New York Times Magazine article that inspired the film. Nothing less than a patient war journalist with amazing access, James is a presence so unobtrusive that his subjects seem to forget his camera is even there.
An inspirational and heartbreaking nail-biter, The Interrupters was more difficult for me to watch than any battle doc I’ve seen in years. A tour de force of editing that’s similar in novelistic scale to his high school basketball epic, Hoop Dreams, James’s latest follows members of Chicago’s CeaseFire Interrupters, who have the Sisyphean task of serving as gang mediators, rushing to the scene of violent incidents to negotiate conflict resolution before the usual cycle of anger, grief, and retaliation can run its infectious course. In another terrific analogy, the CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin compares the violence to tuberculosis—a silent epidemic, a plague that needs to be cured. Most epidemics aren’t treated with antibiotics, but with behavioral changes, he notes. Homicide is the illness young urban teens think they’ll die from and Slutkin’s employees work in the realm of disease control. “They’re not trying to dismantle gangs. What they’re doing is trying to save a life,” the Interrupters program creator Tio Hardiman goes on to explain.
Started in 2004, the program isn’t made up simply of former gang-bangers, but of former higher-ups from the gang hierarchy, lending the negotiators crucial street cred. There’s Ameena Matthews, a devout hijab-wearing Muslim, who also happens to be a former enforcer and the daughter of Jeff Fort, a flamboyant gangster second only to Al Capone in Chicago underworld lore, and who’s currently serving a life sentence for conspiring with the Libyans to commit acts of terrorism. Matthews, married (to an imam) with kids and whose own grandmother was a strong presence in her life, is as much a street preacher burning with rage as she’s a coolheaded interrupter. She’s also the film’s heart and mind, whose secret is finding the soft—“not weak” she emphasizes—spot in a tough guy then getting him to laugh at himself. Rewriting the “sticks and stones may break my bones” idiom, she impatiently huffs, “Words will get you killed!” (Indeed, one CeaseFire meeting is actually interrupted when an exchange escalates into a fight right outside the door of the group’s Englewood headquarters!)
Another African-American interrupter, Cobe Williams, served 12 years for his gangbanging, but he’s also fortunate enough to have been raised by loving grandparents and is now a suburban dad—with a wife who’s a trauma nurse. His current life stands in stark contrast to that of the hardworking single mother who enlists his help in repairing the rift between her two sons. In separate gangs, they’ve threatened to kill each other on several occasions. But when brought together by Williams, the brothers readily admit they love each other to death—and would take one another’s side in any fight. Death before dishonor is also an intrinsic part of the culture.
Yet James is a savvy enough filmmaker to know when to lighten the proceedings lest the heavy, real-life drama prove intolerable to witness. A comedy of the absurd occurs when Matthews locks her keys in her car and none of the hardened kids on the block seem to know how to break into it! “When I was growing up in Englewood, we looked out for one another. To me it’s like there’s still some hope left. I love Englewood,” Matthews says wistfully. The tragedy is that these natural feelings of disappointment and hurt are only expressed through violence in communities like Englewood, where Matthews also serves as a coordinator for families at funeral after funeral. (Anger is never a primary emotion; what occurs first is fear or sadness, Slutkin emphasizes.) A lovely montage of shrines throughout the city, like a sprawling Vietnam memorial with Hennessy bottles and stuffed animals, makes this chronic pain visual.
A lithe Latino interrupter, Eddie Bocanegra is fully aware of how the corruption of innocence begins, explaining how he was drawn to gangs by how their members had both pride and an identity—a potent mix for troubled youth. But he’s also older and wiser enough to recognize that, no matter how hard he tries, he can’t help those who don’t want the help. To mediators like Bocanegra, CeaseFire is a life’s calling and nearly religious in spirit. (When budget cuts force the organization to lay off Williams, he continues to work until enough funding is found to start paying him again.) And Bocanegra and Matthews, who initially gained the trust of 18-year-old Caprysha simply by being the only adult who talked to her, know that just taking the time to listen and empathize with these kids can work miracles. (Later, Matthews mentions that Caprysha, like herself, has been dealt all twos—and has to learn how to play them as if they were a winning hand.) Even the smallest elementary school children in the art class Bocanegra volunteers at are already traumatized, with many expressing their utmost desire in life to be that the shootings stop.
Yet interestingly, Hardiman calls the notion of gangs being the number one cause of most fights a myth. It’s interpersonal violence—people killing over the petty stuff—that needs to be interrupted. Even his members themselves often subdue their own street impulses, feeling like hypocrites when they negotiate with rather than battle the bad guys. “You cannot mediate conflicts without confrontation,” Hardiman reminds. “So the threat of violence has to be there to a degree.” This web becomes even more tangled when an interrupter and a former interrupter sit down with mediators to resolve a conflict surrounding the interrupter’s involvement in the murder of the former interrupter’s father years ago.
And just when you think James’s doc couldn’t get more riveting, along comes part two, each scene packing a different punch. Here the ongoing intervention process, keeping a hothead away from his potential victim (as strenuous a job as keeping an addict from his dealer), is explored more fully when Williams receives a call from Flamo, a guy he knew in jail, asking for his help in a retaliatory hit. When Williams tries to calm him down, he cries, “I respect what y’all are doin’ and all—but fuck that!” This exchange highlights precisely what these interrupters are up against: impulsive hearts over rational minds. (Later, though, a spruced up Flamo, dressed in his security-guard uniform, gives credit to Williams for being like a fly always bugging him—so eventually he “had to get up and attend to that fly.”)
A funeral home director, raised during the civil rights movement, can’t square having an African American president with burying so many black kids. Matthews herself remembers years ago when she was shot and her father phoned and told her someone would answer for it. Her reply, “Why? Leave that boy alone,” was also her first mediation, she declares. Indeed, Matthews’s radical refusal to abide by the street code of an eye-for-an-eye, deciding to walk away from conflict instead, is a major reason why she’s still alive.
When Williams takes the 17-year-old Lil’ Mikey, recently released from prison, back to the scene of his barbershop crime so he can apologize to the owner, the most startling revelation comes after the difficult reunion. Williams asks Lil’ Mikey if he remembered the family his robbery traumatized. His refreshingly honest answer, “Not at all,” reminds us that violence is easy when victims are not viewed as individuals. Bocanegra even takes one of these young victims, 11-year-old Vanessa, whose brother was shot in the head and died in her arms, under his wing. Her dream, in which her sibling tells her, “I’m not dead…I’m still with you,” also sums up the driving force behind CeaseFire’s everyday superheroes, the lucky survivors of the same war zone they’re now trying to bring peace to. As one talking head at a meeting proudly and bluntly states, “We have over 500 years of prison time at this table. That’s a lot of fucking wisdom.”