Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

18 December 2011

The Interrupters

Ameena Matthews in a scene from The Interrupters.

Last evening, i had the opportunity to see The Interrupters,  a documentary so powerful that it will make you question what you thought you knew about violence and courage. It is set in Chicago, a city where in the past few years it seems that hardly a night goes by without the news carrying another story of a young person dying in a violent confrontation, or in some cases as the innocent victim of a stray bullet. There are lots of theories about what to do to stop the violence, most of which involve more guns, more police, or even deploying the National Guard. The Interrupters suggests that there is another way. It is the story of a remarkable group of people, the members of the violence interrupters unit of an organization known as Ceasefire. 

Ceasefire was started by Gary Slutkin, M.D.,  an epidemiologist who spent a decade with the World Health Organization treating infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera in the developing world. The premise of Ceasefire is based on his observations that violence is America's epidemic, and that it can be treated through methods similar to those used to treat other infectious diseases: primarily by isolating it and preventing its spread. This may seem like lofty-minded, out-of-touch liberalism of the kind that sounds good on paper but would never work in the real world, but what makes it work are the interrupters themselves, tough and fearless people who combine the theoretical base of Ceasefire with their own experience as former gang members and convicted felons and their commitment to saving their communities. When an act of violence occurs and is about to escalate into the endless chain of retaliation and further violence, they step in, quite literally, and try to defuse the situation. They don't succeed every time, but surprisingly often they do. 

The film focuses on three members of the violence interrupters unit: Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Ricardo "Cobe" Williams. Each has their own story and their own style. I won't go into detailed accounts of their biographies here as they've been written about in press releases and other reviews of the film; but each of them has past experience with gang life and has served jail time. Their pasts make them especially able to reach out to the kids in their neighborhoods; they are respected because they know firsthand what the young people they interact with are going through. There is a gentle sadness about Eddie Bocanegra, born of his remorse and inability to undo the murder that sent him to jail at the age of 17. In the film, he is shown working primarily with two groups: a class of young kids in an art program and a family so overcome by the death of their young son and brother that they spend each day at the cemetery. Seeing this soft-spoken man in action, it is inconceivable that he could have killed someone in cold blood. But he did. And that really is the point: It is the senselessness and contagion of violence that turns what should have been a sweet (and maybe even a little nerdy) kid into a murderer; but that transformation doesn't have to condemn a kid like Eddie to a permanent state of hardened criminality. 

If the term "in your face" did not already exist it would have to be invented just to describe Ameena Matthews. She might be all of five feet tall but she looks like a colossus striding into the middle of a confrontation between rival groups and managing to restore calm. She is equally capable of shouting in the face of a guy twice her size or giving a hug to a child, as the situation warrants. She is shown primarily working with a troubled young woman named Caprishia. If this were a Hollywood drama, all Caprishia's problems would be solved in the end, but life is seldom that simple. Ameena seems possessed of boundless patience, tempered by a healthy dose of tough love. There is no guarantee that her efforts will be rewarded with success, but she understands that, and helps the viewer to understand it as well. What matters is that she (and we) not give up on a girl like Caprishia, or the many others like her. 

Cobe Williams is a warm and genial guy, whose past was scarred by the murder of his father and his own involvement with drugs and conviction for attempted murder. Lest you think that the violence interrupters are adrenalin junkies who thrive on the danger of their work, the filmmakers show the trepidation Cobe feels as he goes to the home of a volatile and very angry, armed man. After listening patiently to his angry threats and complaints, Cobe manages to calm the guy, who goes by the nickname "Flamo," by jokingly inviting him to dinner. It seems preposterous, but somehow that's why it works. It is enough to get him away from his gun and his house, and start him talking about what had happened. I was very fortunate to attend a screening where Cobe Williams was in attendance and conducted a brief Q & A after the film. He talked a bit about Flamo's post-film life: he has stayed out of trouble with the law, is gainfully employed, and is testing the waters as a stand-up comic (Anyone who has seen the film can attest that he definitely has some talent in that direction!). 

One of the most moving episodes in the film involves Cobe's work with seventeen year-old Li'l Mikey Davis who is trying to get his life back on track after serving a few years in jail. Mikey is one of the film's great success stories. His younger brother's hero-worship makes him deeply aware of his own potential for perpetuating the cycle of violence, imprisonment, and possible death; with the help of Cobe, Mikey turns his life around. He owns the mistakes he made as a fourteen year old with a gun, and asks to visit the barbershop he held up so that he can personally apologize to his victims. It is a powerful and painful moment when the owner of the shop lets him know how badly his actions have scarred her family. The scene can be summed up with one word: courage. It is courage that makes this seventeen year-old kid man up, and even greater courage that allows his victim to let him do it. 

As in his previous documentary, Hoop Dreams (1994), director Steve James gives us a compellingly personal and intimate look into the lives of people who are rarely given media attention that goes beyond stereotypes. As the opening credits of The Interrupters are running, we hear a voiceover montage of news stories reporting on death after death of inner city kids. For those of us who don't live in these neighborhoods, that's often all we get: an opaque and incomprehensible litany of violence. The willingness of the people involved to share their stories, often at their most traumatic moments, is a step towards changing all that. Unlike the old model of locking away the victims of infectious diseases in sanatoria, institutions, or ghettos, The Interrupters helps to show that violence, and its toll on the young, is no more inevitable than the contagions of the past. It is an inspiring story in the truest sense, one that leaves you with not only a sense of admiration for the tough, caring, and committed members of the violence interrupters unit, but also with a deeper belief in the possibility of healing.

If you are in Chicago, you can see The Interrupters now through Thursday, 22 December, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Other scheduled showings can be found on the Kartemquin Films website.

An interview with Ameena Matthews aired on NPR's Fresh Air in August, 2011.

Watch the trailer for The Interrupters here.

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