Compelling characters, real-life tragedy and everyday super-heroics. On paper, Steve James’ The Interrupters seems like it has everything. So why did it leave me cold?
James—director of the legendary documentary Hoop Dreams , as well as the frankly astounding (though much less widely appealing) follow-up, Stevie—returns to the mean streets of Chicago for this sprawling portrait of three “violence interrupters.” Set during a year in which street gang casualty totals topped those of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Interrupters follows a few civic-minded, reformed criminals and their uphill efforts to bring peace inside an everyday war zone.
Founded by a briefly seen, bookish University of Illinois epidemiologist named Gary Slutkin, the organization called CeaseFire employs ex-cons to wander the streets and defuse hot-tempered skirmishes. Their approach is based on the admittedly fascinating theory that violence, like any other communicable disease, thrives in a vacuum. Slutkin’s foot soldiers aren’t here to battle the root causes of gang membership—more than once they’re referred to as a Band-Aid on a plague. These are just level-headed folks who have been around the block before, mediating conflicts and doing their best to make sure that volatile situations don’t escalate from bad to worse.
Led by program leader Tio Hardiman, a bracingly foul-mouthed, bluntly-spoken pragmatist who clearly understands that he’s fighting an uphill battle, The Interrupters begins in a sort of hell, with our heroes wandering Chicago’s South Side, butting into confrontations, risking life and limb to keep everybody involved alive for an extra day or two. Their main tactic seems to be stalling, hoping that a bit of reason will finally dawn on the assailants, maybe after a good night’s sleep and a few hours off the block.
Showiest of the three is Ameena Matthews, daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort and one-time “enforcer” on the street. Her hair might be hidden behind an Islamic scarf, but looks can be deceiving, particularly once you get a load of Matthews’ epic voice. Whether shouting down a funeral ceremony for a young gang-banger or talking an assailant into dropping the massive chunk of concrete with which he’s currently beating a victim, Matthews probably deserves her own documentary. James gives short-shrift to her religious conversion, offering only briefly tantalizing hints about her shady past and never quite digging into what makes this fascinating character tick.
Ditto for Cobe Williams, a placid, bearlike figure who approaches every potentially deadly interaction with Zen calm. Despite an oft-mentioned history of violence, he’s an easy-going cat, cooling out possible murderers by taking them on slow car rides around the neighborhood, his sheer force of personality enough to steady even the most jangled nerves. Williams’ smoothly insinuating interactions with a dude dubbed Flamo again hint at the larger picture lurking beyond The Interrupters ’ margins.
Dropped into the picture abruptly, somewhere around the halfway point, Eddie Bocanegra is a tiny, jug-eared fellow aching for redemption after committing a murder at age 17 and thus now approaching the children of this battered Chicago neighborhood with a gentle, nurturing air and an obvious hole in his heart. Bocanegra’s delicate manner and bearing are a strange match for his violent past, and the more time he spends consoling victims’ families or working art-therapy exercise with local kids after shootings, Eddie’s obvious yearning for redemption becomes one of the picture’s most captivating elements.
Covering an entire year, with only the changes in seasons signaling forward motion, James adopts a panoramic, fly-on-the-wall approach. Scenes play out in a matter-of-fact fashion, leaving only occasionally pushy music cues to shove us forward in the narrative. It’s a sprawling canvas, but James drops us deep inside without locating any central driving force. There’s a lot of fascinating behavior here with no forward momentum.
Already screened at different festivals with several different running times, The Interrupters initial 144 minutes has been truncated to 125, and right now I’m thinking there needs to be either more, or less of it. The day-to-day, in-and-out redundant grind of street-life registers in full force, but I’m still left wanting to know more about what was going on behind the scenes, particularly at the CeaseFire headquarters. Tio Hardiman’s brief mentions of criminal recidivism within the organization are never elaborated upon.
The movie feels weirdly hands-off and remote, which is doubly odd because what made Stevie such a difficult, powerful movie was James examining his own complicity as a “have” in the land of “have nots.” Despite all the front-line access and invaluable footage, The Interrupters ultimately feels like it is glimpsed from a distance.
Director: Steve James
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely