REVIEW: The Interrupters [2011]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 125 minutes | Release Date: July 29th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: The Cinema Guild
Director(s): Steve James
Writer(s): Alex Kotlowitz (New York Times magazine article)

“Tell my mom I said hi”

Until you’ve been there, you can’t understand. This is the theory behind those who call themselves The Interrupters in Steve James‘ new documentary. A group of former high ranking gang members from the streets of Chicago, these men and women meet to brainstorm and come up with solutions to the rampant violence destroying the youth of their city. They have joined together to become the initial transmission of interruption into conflicts containing the potential to explode into a powderkeg of blood over as little as a five-dollar bag of hash. Violence is all these kids know and if anyone has the power to get through to them it is the adult versions of themselves looking back full of the same regret they hope to prevent subsequent generations from experiencing.

With each frame dripping of authenticity, any worry about the film falling into a “Cops” trap of more farce than truth washes away after the first voices of sorrow cry through the speakers. Uncensored and unstaged, we watch a fight breakout right outside the doors of a CeaseFire Interrupters meeting. A boy has been beat up and his sisters have decided to seek vengeance with a butcher knife. Concrete is thrown, the knife changes hands, and only the burqa-wearing Ameena Matthews has placed herself into the fray to talk sense into anyone who will listen. She tries her best to prevent the incident from escalating into murder and steals away another young boy on the edge of rage after being hit in the face with a rock. He listens to this kindly woman, gets in her car, and later is found laughing with cousins about the comical way he fell when struck.

Not just anyone could have stepped in like Ameena. She isn’t some bleeding heart liberal come to ‘do good’ after college life taught her the struggles of the ghetto. No, ‘Meena’ is a gangbanger. Daughter to one of Chicago’s most infamous criminals, Jeff Fort, she was a Lieutenant in Englewood and took care of the business—money, drugs, and women. Bred into violence like those around her, she embraced the life until a bullet changed everything. Next came Islam, marrying a Sheikh, and discovering a purpose to stop the abuse that ravaged her childhood from doing the same to hundreds of others. A woman of patience, forgiveness, and love, Ameena hasn’t lost any tenacity or credibility. When the offspring of Chief Malik speaks on the streets of Chicago, you better listen. She’s lived the life, done the time, and escaped to fight another day. The simple fact she’s alive makes her a role model.

Only one of James’ reformed criminal trio looking to right past wrongs by saving the future of lost children biding time until their own funerals, she may become the most recognizable. Among the others who used to be kingpins, muscle, and men you needed to beat in order to move up the ranks are Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. The former served twelve years for attempted murder and the latter fourteen for doing the deed. They served their time, discovered the guilt and pain of their actions on behalf of victims, family, and themselves, as well as beat the odds to reform. Men like these have a connection to the bangers knocking heads because of their reputation. When Cobe or Eddie tells you your being hasty, you listen because you respect who they are. Neither cops nor rats, they’re survivors who found enlightenment.

Ceasefire balances a fine line to reach kids still possessing the capacity to evolve into the people they dreamed they could become. We’re shown a handful of cases during the course of a year to understand the range of problems and level of acceptance the city has for these retired ex-cons. Ameena helps a teen named Caprysha aspire to graduate high school despite self-destruction preventing it; Cobe seeks to mediate between a mother who moved out after years of her sons fighting on rival gangs inside their home; and Eddie goes into the schools to teach art’s cathartic power. These kids say they aren’t “that kind of guy” when posited the question of whether they have the ability to take another’s life, but you can’t help believe group leader Tio Hardiman‘s statistic explaining how sixty percent of those in jail started out saying the same thing.

The Interrupters‘ subject matter begs for so-called professionals who’ve never set foot on the streets, but James refuses to pander. He sticks to his guns and shows only Interrupters and those they’re desperately looking to save. We hear tales of Cobe’s grandmother bailing him out of jail only to leave him the next time to teach him responsibility for his actions; Ameena speaks about the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse experienced from age nine to fifteen before moving in with grandma “Medea”; and Eddie admits his inability to face the family of the man he slain despite wanting nothing more than to apologize. They’ve all known the life of going “zero to rage” in seconds without caring about tomorrow; treating funerals of friends dress rehearsals of their own. The litany of memorials on walls and curbs where victims were murdered help make us aware of the epidemic and the scary realization they’ve become too common.

Only when innocent honor students like Derrion Albert are murdered on camera phones or the National Guard is rumored to come in does the national spotlight deem the problem worthy of note. The disease is otherwise left to the citizens to protect their own. With a police force seen as the enemy, it’s up to a select few heroes choosing the righteous path over years of evil to save everyone from decimation. We hope Cobe’s work with the troubled Flamo and shaken Lil’ Mickey is the beginning of a future where kids can walk outside without fear but know we are in the minority. If nothing else it’s amazing to see a fresh approach from those wishing someone had saved them as kids taking the survival of the human race into their own hands. It’s inspiring, emotionally raw, and the perfect definition of bravery. We pray others will see the film and do the same because our future has sadly been none too bright the past decade.

[1] Ameena Matthews, violence interrupter Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
[2] Cobe Williams, violence interrupter Courtesy of Kartemquin Films
[3] Ameena Matthews (background), violence interrupter Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

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