The Interrupters (2011)
Would be pretty surprised if saw a better movie this year.
The Interrupters is a documentary that follows a year in the life of the CeaseFire violence interrupters. Made up entirely of ex-gang members who’ve done their time and seen the error of their ways, CeaseFire’s mission is to put an end to the violence epidemic among the youth of Chicago by mediating conflicts before they escalate into murders.
If you’ve heard of director Steve James, it’s probably because you’ve seen Hoop Dreams. It’s been a while since the last time I saw it, but it doesn’t take much to realize Hoop Dreams is one of the all-time greats. What started out as a documentary about two teenage basketball prodigies from inner-city Chicago eventually turned into one of the most emotional, profound, and unexpected insights into American life that still resonates to this day. 17 years later, James has returned to Chicago to do the same for a new generation of kids who’ve traded in their basketballs for handguns and turned their streets into mortuaries. Until I saw the trailer for this, I had no who “The Interrupters” were, I had no idea who Derrion Albert was, and I was generally oblivious to the warzone that has been inner-city Chicago. I guess I could blame myself for not keeping up with current events, but in a world where Kardashian divorces and Lohan parole hearings are headline news, I’m guessing I’m not alone on this one. And that’s just the first reason this movie deserves to be seen, because this stuff shouldn’t come as a surprise.
With that being said, it was nothing short of brave for James to make this movie. See, there aren’t a whole lot of white people who show up on camera here, and in a place where innocent bystanders are more common than you can imagine, it couldn’t have been easy for James to spend a year as a white guy walking through the some roughest neighborhoods in Chicago with a giant camera on his shoulder. But if the story had been told in any other medium or tackled from a distance, there’s no way it would have had the same impact. Regardless of whether he gets it or not, James deserves an Oscar for what he does here, and the impact is unforgettable. And as far as his subjects are concerned, “brave” doesn’t even come close.
The members of CeaseFire that James spends the majority of his time with are founder Tio Hardman and violence interrupters Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra. Those names might no mean much to you now, but they will after you meet them. Now, I’m not gonna pretend to know what life must be like for the kids that they’re working with, but as someone who used to work with at-risk youth in the South Bronx every day for two years, I do know that it can be one hell of a struggle getting through to them. So when I think about putting myself in Ameena Matthews’ shoes – daughter to a legend in the gang circles of Chicago – as she approaches a group of young men wearing a whole lot of red and a mind to kill without thinking twice, I’d think about turning tail and hoping for the best. But that’s not Matthews. She stands right inside the huddle, talks with them instead of to them, tells them exactly what’s going through their heads because she knows exactly where they’re coming from, and ultimately gets them to walk away changed men. To me, that’s heroism, especially in a community that has the power to speak up but prefers to stay silent.
Not too long ago, I recommended the documentary Dark Days to my mom – an exposé into the mole people living off the grid in the tunnels of the New York City subway system during the ’90s. Since my mom creates housing for the homeless in NYC for a living, and I watch a crap load of movies, I thought this would be a surefire home run. I was mistaken. She didn’t dislike it, but her biggest issue with Dark Days was that, while it exposes a problem and gives the audience an insider’s perspective to a reality that few will ever experience, it doesn’t propose a solution, and that’s how you really help people. There are so many extraordinary aspects of The Interrupters that makes it required viewing for anyone with a pulse, but what sends it home for me is how it differs from the way Dark Days suffered. This movie is as much about the solution as it is the problem, and both are equally complex.
I mean, how do you stop people from killing each other when it’s the norm? When a local mortician tells James that the life expectancy of a young black male living in the worst neighborhood of Chicago is 30-years-old, I can’t even begin wrap my head around that let alone come up with a way to change it. And this isn’t even about gang wars or rival turfs, it’s a matter of pride and respect and the permanent lengths that people go to in order to ensure they have both. It’s about men and women, boys and girls, mothers and fathers getting gunned down on the street for something they didn’t do or for something that doesn’t even matter. Early on in the film there’s a scene where members of CeaseFire have to stop a group of teenagers from starting an all-out street war because someone owed someone else five bucks. Killing someone over five bucks, five bucks that probably isn’t even yours. That’s fucking crazy, but it happens all the time. Over the years I’ve heard about people getting shot for looking at someone the wrong way or saying the wrong thing, and I just thought it was all talk. Believe me, I wish it was.
There’s no quick fix for the issues this movie brings to light, and while it may take place in Chicago, it’s not just Chicago. The mindset of murder is as much an epidemic as any lethal disease, but you gotta believe there’s a cure. When you see how CeaseFire impacts the lives of these kids and you see them grow into someone so much better and wiser over the course of a year, that’s what makes you believe. Matthews, Hardiman, Williams, and Bocanegra have all done and experienced awful things in their time, and lesser people would use that as ammo to lash out further against the world that wronged them. They’re living examples that violence begets violence, they’re lucky than most in that they’re still alive to make a difference, and without them around, these kids wouldn’t stand a chance. When the cameras stop rolling, you’ll want to know how things worked out for these kids in the exact same way we all wanted to know how things played out for Arthur Agee and William Gates. After getting out of prison at 17 and gets a job working at a daycare center, a teen named “Lil'” Mike turns to the camera with rake in hand and says, “They used to tell me, ‘You a class-X felon, you can’t do nothin’.’ Well now I got something. I got a job.” Just one of many scenes that left me speechless and broke me down, and just one of the many kids that’ll renew your faith in mankind.
The importance of The Interrupters in the world today is something I really can’t emphasize enough. I’ve seen a lot of great movies this year and still have some left to go, but after finally getting the chance to see this, everything else just feels irrelevant. Some people go to see movies to escape from the real world, some people make movies for the very same reason. There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is not one of those movies. Folks, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to all horrors of life when the solution is to face it head on at the risk of your own. These are the Gandhis of our generation, the people who are putting their necks on the line to be the change they want to see in the world, and they deserve more recognition and support than they will ever receive. The Interrupters is a movie that I wish never had to be made, but the fact that it was is as inspiring and hopeful as it is tragic and devastating. These are the movies that change the world, and it’s really as simple as that.