Let me start off this review by explaining that The Interrupters hits me very close to home. The searing documentary takes place on the south and west sides of Chicago, a few neighborhoods away from where I live. In many shots are buildings and streets I know, and the overarching stories are ones I’ve heard echoed and rumored for years. This review can and will only be from the point of view of a Chicagoan, with all of the pain and sense of responsibility that incurs. Now that that’s clear, let’s get into what makes this documentary so special.
From the beginning, The Interrupters hits you like a chunk of concrete in the face. It grabs you like a fighting dog and locks its jaw for 125 minutes. It is tough as steel and brutally honest. Those words almost seem dim and cliché compared to the singular clarity portrayed in The Interrupters. In a society and city where talking about violence in poor neighborhoods is somewhat taboo, Interrupters‘ director Steve James (Hoop Dreams – 1994) and producer Alex Kotlowitz thrash their way through class and race barriers to examine the pressures and insurmountable obstacles facing these forgotten parts of our fair city with an unheard of frankness.
The documentary shadows three “Violence Interrupters” who are a part of CeaseFire Illinois‘ innovative program aimed at decreasing violence, particularly retaliatory violence, in some of the most crime-riddled parts of the city of Chicago. All of the Interrupters who work with CeaseFire used to be notorious or leading members of infamous gangs in Chicago, who all turned their lives around in one way or another and are now working towards restoring peace in the neighborhoods they know and love.
As one of the only female Violence Interrupters, Ameena Matthews shines like a sun in the movie, blazing and tireless in her pursuits of peace and justice. She easily wins over audiences’ hearts with her brash talk and engulfing love. The real genius of Matthews though, is her street-wise ability to always say exactly what needs to be said at any given moment and her innate fearlessness. Matthews is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the most notorious gang leaders in Chicago in the 1960s. Because of her own troubled past, Matthews can understand and reach people that even other Interrupters may not be able to.
The other Interrupters featured in the movie are also incredible, though to be honest, Matthews tended to steal the spotlight for me. Interrupter Cobe Williams comes across as a big teddy bear who hides the quiet, subtle strength of a grizzly, and Eddie Bocanegra is like the wise older brother every block in every city should have.
The documentary teeters between shocking, nauseating real violence, subsequent meditations, and examining the causes and fuels of the violent circumstances facing people in these neighborhoods. The film talks about these possible causes through interviews with CeaseFire members, experts and the people living in these communities.
The Interrupters does not single out any particular cause of the state of terror in these communities, but instead investigates how these people are being seemingly condemned from all sides. The Interrupters does this subtly, not by explicitly pointing out with bullet points that this and this and this are issues but instead it quietly addresses various potential causes and the people that the causes are affecting. Some of the issues that the film brings up are troubled family lives, misunderstanding from young people’s schools and the government behind those schools, and – of course – the inability to find jobs.
CeaseFire members explain that when someone is released from prison and they can’t find a job but still have bills to pay, they can easily be lead back to the lives they were in before they were incarcerated. In a particularly poetic part of the movie, a funeral director points out his astonishment and confusion about the fact that while we have a black president, which is something he never thought he would see in his lifetime, he’s still burying black children everyday.
While The Interrupters is smart and lyrical, its real glory is in its sincerity. Speaking openly and kindly about violence, especially to people in the midst of it, is frowned upon, especially if it’s coming from white kids like me. That’s why it makes me feel such hope and joy that a program like the Violence Interrupters exists in this city. Someone really has to do something about these problems, and honestly, it probably can’t be me.
There is a part of The Interrupters where a class of young children, probably 5th or 6th grade, open up to one of the Interrupters about the shootings and gang activities that have taken place in their communities (it is more heartbreaking than you can even imagine) when their upbeat, blonde, white woman teacher tells them that they can always confide these things with her too. The children give her one of those, “uuhhh …. errr …” kinds of responses. This is because it is precisely NOT just anyone who can understand what’s happening in these kids’ lives.
For this reason, The Interrupters leaves the audience to wrestle with all that they have seen in the film, and does not offer any easy solutions. No one wants to face the kinds of emotions surrounding such needless violence while being unprepared for opening a can of worms. The Violence Interrupters dive headfirst into that can of worms like a swarm of hungry fish.
The Interrupters also does a great job covering conflicting ideas about the Violence Interrupters program itself. One of the Interrupters in the film, Eddie, asserts that stopping violence and mediating conflict is like putting a band-aid on larger problems within communities, while one of the higher-ups at the CeaseFire organization claims that stopping violence is actually the first step in rehabilitating a community. Whichever side of the debate the audience falls on, it is undeniable that the act of stepping selflessly into the midst of conflict and saving a life is of the noblest of actions.
The Interrupters sheds light on an issue in our society that we truly need to be more aware of. It does a dazzling job at depicting this dramatic issue, and it has the charisma to be able to get to the parts of the world that it needs to. Watching The Interrupters made me cry, laugh and filled me with a flood of inspiration and admiration. Roger Ebert has called it “Oscar material”, and for good reason. This is an absolute must-see for every Chicagoan, every city-dweller, and every American. It will break you down with the richness of its turmoil, and then leave you with the taste of redemption in your mouth.
For The Interrupters screenings, check out the movie’s website.