Film review: The Interrupters (MFF 2011)

The Interrupters
Kartemquin Films, Rise Films

STARRING Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Ameena Matthews, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams
WRITTEN BY Alex Kotlowitz
PRODUCED BY Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James

SHOT BY Steve James
MUSIC BY Joshua Abrams
EDITED BY Aaron Wickenden, Steve James
DISTRIBUTED BY Cinema Guild, PBSd, Dogwoof

Screened at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

The Interrupters is a documentary by Steve James, who brought us Hoop Dreams and is equally concerned with Chicago’s African-American youths and the epidemic-proportion homicide statistics they create or become – a purgatory also known as “The Madness.” A program called CeaseFire has made an effort to install Violence Interrupters into the populace who essentially dial down the burners which cause violence in a given situation. This generally involves a wronged individual who is on the verge of vengeance, holding up a mirror, and simply doing everything one can to prevent the violence without judgment.

Each Interrupter who receives a spotlight had experienced a profound wise-up: Ameena Matthews, an Interrupter who is the daughter of Jeff Fort (a not insignificant Chicago gang leader), whose lighthouse is manned by Muhammad – Mr. Hammy steered Ameena away from the rocks before it was too late. Eddie Bocanegra, former high level gang member, murdered and experienced The Big Raskalnikov-Siberian Redemption – he was born decent and almost spoiled. And Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, whose father was killed when he was 11, was thrice imprisoned until 2004. Now they all work the beat. They’re taking back the streets. They stop the violence before it starts. They are: The Interrupters. Generally Interrupting involves tracking down, or being warned of, precipitating and seemingly inconsolable feelings of vengeance or bitterness as the result of the hopelessness of American lower class hell.

Much of the screentime is taken up by Capricia, a most interesting case, a young black woman who bonds with Ameena and becomes a ‘daughter’ to her. Capricia is a borderline case: a woman used to a great deal of violence and fully prepared to instigate violence of her own if properly finessed, which is extremely easy since she is highly defensive. Lord knows I cannot blame her for this. But what I find more interesting is the personality of Capricia – any number of underprivileged youths could’ve found themselves in a similar situation, and under Ameena’s watchful eye, but there is a streak of self-destruction, a touch of madness behind Capricia’s actions; a heightened sensitivity, this viewer opines. One which has been malnourished and tenderized to a raw nerve. I’m sure it is this sensitivity – potentially dogmatic-level sensitivity, this viewer further opines – which brought together Ameena and Capricia. Her dynamic is fascinating, if not quite painful. Already within the span of the film does Capricia begin to make decisions which will drastically alter her life’s trajectory, and/or take many many years to overcome – if she’s fortunate enough to have the opportunity.

If Interrupters suffers from anything, it’s the unavoidable sense of futility resulting from a good hard look at these impossible problems (or because of the film’s rather broad peek into so much complication). From the bottom, the reasons for violence are easier to see: desperation, distraction (drug-related), and pain, pain, pain, deaths of friends and loved ones, a sense of hopelessness for any possible future beyond 30 years of age. In such an existence, discipline and fortitude cannot be understood, and rage comes just so easily that controlling it becomes a biblical-sized task – by which I mean it takes a dogma, an entire perspective on living, to endure violence and despair that intrudes daily. Such dogmatism is not readily found in seed-sowing youth, and if so few individuals sanely survive youth… The notion I could not shake is knowing that desperation breeds desperation, and as high-minded as one may be at the moment, it is simply too difficult to live around such pain and remain hopeful, undistracted. The desperation, the need, is the real problem, the tremendously complicated problem. The problem that questions fifty years or more of economic policy decisions, just for starters. Or is it merely those criminal CEOs and their bonuses? Stop watching television, stop taking the Soma pills.

If this doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Docu of 2011, it’ll have been a close second. You heard it here first. Thanks to Mr. James for bringing to public attention an organization that needs all the support it can get.

written by David Ashley