Late in The Interrupters, one of its main subjects, Ameena Matthews, proclaims, “Why am I doing this? I must be a glutton for punishment.” It’s a rare moment of despair from the seemingly indomitable volunteers who anchor the film, and it goes far in illustrating the enormity of the situation they’re facing.
The Interrupters is the latest effort by Steve James who, after investigating the chaplain of America’s most active execution chamber (At the Death House Door) and his own personal history (Stevie), returned to where he cut his teeth in feature-making: Chicago’s inner city. James is, of course, the director of 1994’s Hoop Dreams, an astounding and nuanced documentary that followed the lives of two adolescent NBA hopefuls for five years.
The Interrupters chronicles the grassroots efforts by the local anti-violence program CeaseFire in 2009, a year in which Chicago received national media attention after brutal footage of 15-year old Derrion Albert’s beating death went viral.
Once again, James has shown an uncanny ability to go into a tough, unforgiving environment and tell a delicate human story.
The film revolves around three ‘violence interrupters:’ former gang members who are
CeaseFire’s on-the-ground representatives. They are among the few with the firsthand experience and street cred to have the respect and the ears of the South Side’s gangsters. And their ability to cope with the emotional toll is astounding. It’s quickly clear Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra possess adamantine spirits.
Matthews is first to take the spotlight, and while the other two interrupters are more than laudable, she is the heart and the fire of this film. The daughter of Chicago kingpin Jeff Fort, Matthews speaks with barbed honesty, turning the stoniest gangsters turn from defiance to endorsement with a few short sentences: “Who does this little shorty belong to? He’s just hanging around y’all, right? So he sees everything y’all do, right? So if this brother right here catches a case, and does a hundred years, whose fault is it? His fault? Teach him righteous.”
But it’s Cobe Williams who anchors the most affecting interaction of the film.
We are introduced to an incendiary man fittingly nicknamed ‘Flamo’ when Cobe makes a house call in an effort to reach out to the troubled man. Flamo’s initial response is furious, and chillingly expository: “Fuck the problem. Fuck the solution. I’m 32 years old and I’ve been locked up 15 years of my life. What [does] that mean? That’s where I grew up at.”
He throws his phone to the ground, and screams as he kicks the walls of his house. It’s a portrait of frustration and hopelessness, and of self-destruction. But Cobe’s patient persistence eventually gets to Flamo.
By its conclusion, the film’s most volatile figure becomes one of its many glimmers of hope. There are countless depictions of urban squalor and violence that are piercingly accurate, but The Interrupters is able to find positive change amongst the assorted tragedies of the locale.
The image from the film that remains burned into my memory is of a painted brick wall upon which epitaphs for the murdered are scrawled.
Nestled in between the farewells to sons, sisters and friends was a message written so plain and small it seemed shy among the grand elegies surrounding it: “I am next.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this documentary is that, despite being steeped in anguish, it left me believing the fulfillment of this prophecy could be, at the very least, interrupted.
The Interrupters is being shown by Cinema Politica on Sept. 26 at 7 p.m., in room H-110. For more information, go to www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia