Judge Clark Douglas tends to interrupt at most inappropriate times.
From the director of Hoop Dreams.
In the fall of 2009, the news media offered an onslaught of coverage highlighting escalating violence in Chicago. The coverage was largely inspired by the death of 16-year-old high school student Derrion Albert, who was brutally beaten to death after getting caught in the middle of a brawl between a handful of the other students. President Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chicago to engage in discussions on violence with Mayor Daley, Anderson Cooper swooped in to pontificate on the tragedy of it all and people across the country shook their heads in dismay. After a couple of weeks, the noise died down and people forgot about the story. The people outside of Chicago, at least. The violence didn't stop, nor had it started with the killing of Derrion Albert. That particular incident just happened to be caught on video, which made it a better news story.
Most of the people featured in Steve James' searing documentary The Interrupters regard the media frenzy over Albert's death as laughable. They've been seeing this kind of madness all the time, and suddenly a handful of important folks have decided it's a big deal? The visits from Holder, Duncan and Cooper are regarded as nothing more than useless pomp and circumstance. The real heroes of the film are "The Violence Interrupters," a group of individuals (most of whom are ex-cons and/or former gang members) devoted to breaking up confrontations and saving lives. They've been fighting the good fight even when no one else was paying attention, because they're not just dealing with a momentarily fashionable social cause. People are getting killed for stupid reasons every day, and the madness needs to stop.
The members of the group (officially dubbed CeaseFire) find themselves in a particularly challenging position. Their goal is not to break up gangs, stop drug abuse or take down criminals. They only want to stop the killings. They have a tenuous relationship with the police department, as the police seem to suspect them of doing to little to prevent crime (and possibly aiding crime in certain instances). They have a tenuous relationship with the community, as some people suspect them of being informants for the police. It's a tricky balancing act, and the members of CeaseFire are constantly required to demonstrate an enormous amount of courage, insight and perseverance.
Being a member of CeaseFire isn't just about finding confrontations and attempting to break them up. It's about establishing relationships with people, building trust and attempting to change the way people think rather than merely stopping a specific incident. "You go at them, you know they're coming back at your family," one member tells an angry young man hellbent on vengeance. "Walking away to protect your family, that's being a man, that's being a real gangsta." It's also about knowing when to walk away; recognizing that not every confrontation can be stopped and some situations are beyond fixing. CeaseFire members frequently find themselves being held at gunpoint; one member is shot midway through the film in the midst of a particularly unfortunate squabble.
The Interrupters is enormously effective in presenting a portrait of an impoverished social climate in which petty squabbles frequently elevate into excessive violence. Egos run rampant in the community; people are willing to kill for the sake of "defending the honor" of a family member someone else insulted. Killing has become such a way of life that many of the city's young people have come to embrace it. One of the most sobering interviewees is a local funeral home director, who observes the way the young people of the city come to pay respect to their fallen comrades and express wishes to go out in similarly glorious fashion. A lot of these kids have no intention of growing old. It's a deep-rooted problem without an easy solution, and it's one which most people would rather look away from. In some situations, things get so intense that the police simply leave out of fear for their lives. They'd rather clean up the mess afterwards than prevent it from happening.
While it's clear that the members of CeaseFire are doing more to help things than anyone else, it's also clear that they're fighting an uphill battle. Yes, some lives are changed in dramatic ways (one seemingly irredeemable member manages a remarkable turnaround), but plenty of folks who had made progress fall back into old habits, re-embrace violence and end up in prison (or worse). The film's most powerful voice is CeaseFire member Ameena Matthews, a devout Muslim woman who delivers a room-rattling speech at a teenager's funeral. She is capable of both extraordinary warmth and relentless fury, knowing precisely when she needs to put her arm around someone's shoulder and when she needs to get in their face. Seeing her seemingly unflappable facade start to crumble late in the documentary is one of the film's most heartbreaking sights: "I don't know why I bother," she weeps.
The Interrupters is given a solid DVD presentation, offering decent detail when it has the opportunity to do so (a good deal of rough-looking footage is employed). Audio is also effective, and scenes in which certain speakers sound distant or muffled are aided by subtitles. Supplements include a whopping 56 minutes of deleted scenes (an early cut of the film ran close to three hours, while the final version is a tight 128 minutes) and a theatrical trailer.
The Interrupters may spotlight violence in Chicago, but it's no more a film about Chicago than The Wire was a show about Baltimore. It highlights a problem which can be found in cities across the entire country; a problem which is far too easily ignored by people fortunate enough to live outside the madness. This is a riveting documentary and an important contribution to a conversation our country needs to be having.
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