The Interrupters Documentary Analysis Essay
Patiently, brilliantly, Steve James looks closely at our society. He begins documentaries with no easy end in sight, and persists. How could he have guessed his masterpiece "Hoop Dreams" () would develop into a story of such incredible power? Now, in "The Interrupters," he has made his most important film, telling the story of ex-convicts who go daily into the streets of Chicago to try to talk gang members out of shooting at one another.
These men, who are called the Interrupters, are good people and brave. All have done prison time. Some of them have murdered. They were young when they were seduced by the lure of street gangs, guns, easy money and quick violence. Now they are older, wiser, and sad. They regard the death toll in Chicago and see young people throwing their lives away and often killing bystanders by accident.
On the news last week, there was the story of a child killed by stray gunfire. He was in the middle of a basketball game in a city park. One of his teammates told the camera: "It's a shame he never had the experience of life." There are fuzzy shots of a surveillance camera showing a white car with a sunroof speeding from the site. Inside were probably young men empowered by firearms and an automobile to shoot stupidly into a park and make a pathetic gang gesture. The Interrupters were once such young men — and women. They once were blind, but now they see.
James' film, mighty and heart-wrenching, follows members of CeaseFire, tough negotiators who monitor gang activity in their neighborhoods and try to anticipate developing warfare. They make it their business to know the gang leaders and members. They build trust. In some shots in this film, they are physically in the possible line of fire — and so are Steve James and his small crew. They might as well be in a war zone. Indeed, the movie opens with the information that during early as many people died of street violence in Chicago as U.S. soldiers did in Iraq and Afghanistan; 20 died in one night here. Do not think only of Chicago. This is a national epidemic, its toll much larger than our deaths in war.
CeaseFire leaders hold a harrowing series of meetings to report on events in their districts and share their plans. James follows them on their rounds, watching as a knife fight is broken up by an Interrupter. They're up against an embedded mindset: Violence inspires retribution, and retribution inspires violence. It is no different on the South Side of Chicago than it has been in Ireland, Bosnia or the Middle East.
There is an obvious difference between those places and Chicago. In Europe and the Middle East, killings are usually driven by ethnic and religious differences. In an American inner city, where religious differences are irrelevant, and everyone is of the same ethnicity, gangs take the place of race or belief. They provide an identity, no matter how paltry.
Are gangs protecting their turfs for drug sales? Not primarily. They are protecting it because — it is theirs. If you walk on the wrong side of the street, you may be inviting death. This is pathetic, but enforcing gang turfs provides some of these children and teenagers with the only source of self-esteem they find available. Sometimes they join gangs out of a fearful instinct for self-protection.
This is a universal human characteristic. When I was a child, I rode my bike home from school down a daily network of neighborhood streets. On one street, some kids were sitting on a porch. They pulled me off my bike, punched me and told me it was "their" street. They were white like me. They had no idea what school I went to. By protecting "their" street, they were gaining esteem. I have no doubt they felt good afterward.
"The Interrupters" is based on a much-acclaimed article in the New York Times Magazine by Alex Kotlowitz, who followed a period of intense violence in Chicago. He joined with James to co-produce the film. It is difficult to imagine the effort, day after day for a year, of following this laborious, heroic and so often fruitless volunteer work. Today when I read yet another story of a senseless gang killing, I find some small consolation in the thought that it could be worse.
Stop the shooting: That's the motto of CeaseFire, an organization dedicated to reducing the violence plaguing the streets of Chicago.
A new documentary, "The Interrupters," brings CeaseFire's fight, and the story of the people who work there, and those they work with, to the screen. The movie was directed and produced by Steve James, director of "Hoop Dreams" and also produced by Alex Kotlowitz, an author who first wrote about the organization for the New York Times Magazine in
The interrupters themselves all have histories similar to those of the people they are trying to help, a key factor in their success. Tio Hardiman, the Director of CeaseFire Illinois and a former drug addict and hustler, remembers early skepticism from whose who questioned whether such an organization could possibly make a difference.
"You got to talk as if, 'Man, I know, I been there," he says of the interrupters. "Save yourself brother -- I'm not preaching to you."
In the film, we follow three interrupters -- Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. Ameena, the daughter of Jeff Fort -- a major gang leader in the 70s -- spent time as a teen involved in a gang, and now takes to the streets to keep kids from doing the same. When Ameena enters a mediation, standing at about a foot shorter than the teenage boys around her, she manages to be authoritative, even scolding, without ever verging on condescension or intimidation.
Dr. Gary Slutkin, CeaseFire's founder and executive director, who has worked as an epidemiologist for almost 30 years, began his work on the U.S. violence epidemic in His view, that violence can be treated with the same methods that are used to curtail AIDS or tuberculosis epidemics, resulted in CeaseFire, which has since reduced shootings and killings by 41 to 73 percent, according to an independent evaluation by the Department of Justice.
"We used to see people with TB or leprosy as bad, evil people, but violence is as invisible today as the microorganisms of the past were," he says in the film. "I see it as behavior, not as bad people -- you can judge it, but its not what we do in science."
This idea, that violence is not, as it is often perceived, a result of the bad choices or poor character of the people involved, but a learned behavior inextricably tied to the circumstances of one's birth and environment, drives the film. But we see that the ones who have the most difficulty believing in this idea are the same men and women who are trying to change their lives for the better.
The film emphasizes the notion that much of the violence on the streets results from interpersonal conflict, rather than from gang-related disputes.
Ameena describes the mindset of a young woman who wakes up and goes to school, stomach empty, wearing her niece's old clothes, having been violated by her mother's boyfriend the night before. When someone bumps into that woman in the hallway, she goes from "zero to rage" in a minute and acts out.
Caprysha, a young woman Ameena takes under her wing, struggles to adopt the new mindset, and ends up violating her parole, despite Ameena's efforts. In one scene, Ameena takes her to get her nails done and as Caprysha surveys her new green nails with disbelief, she begins to cry.
"You deserve to be happy -- you're 19," Ameena tells her.
She would be surprised to know that any of us watching the film could care about her, which is, perhaps, part of the problem. How do you convince someone that they are important enough to lead the life they want when they don't believe it themselves? How can Caprysha believe that she can become a pediatrician when no one around her has managed the same?
Eddie, a slight year-old man in glasses, went to jail for 14 years for a murder he committed at We follow him as he visits a school of young children, laden with paintings he created during his own time in prison, and coaxes them to tell him what's really troubling them. They decide they will paint about gang violence.
These children are not yet at the age where they might themselves end up fighting on the street, but they have all seen enough violence to be afraid. One girl, trying to describe a shooting that happened outside her home, begins to cry and cannot continue. Another boy comes to Eddie to confess his fears for an older cousin who carries a pistol.
"Painful, lonely, broken, suffering," reads one finished painting. "Revived, repaired, rejoice, hope," reads another. The first is about how the children have felt in the past. The second is what they hope for the future.
We meet Flamo, another young man Cobe mentors, just after his brother has arrested and his mother handcuffed by the police. He is angry, agitated, and eager to pursue retribution.
"Fuck the problem, fuck the solution," he yells at Cobe, before Cobe manages to talk him down and bring him into the CeaseFire offices, where the group discusses his situation as he sits unseen in the back.
Flamo's frustration seems to stem from a sense that things can't change. The murder of Derrion Albert in , an incident that gained national fame when amateur footage of the young man being beaten to death with wooden planks hit YouTube, stands in the film as a key example of the distance between the local reality of violence and the fickleness of public interest.
After the incident, President Obama sent U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to Chicago to speak with Mayor Daley about youth violence. But in the community, these gestures fail to spark genuine excitement that such actions could really help to change things.
"Once the media is gone back to wherever they came from, we need to step up and do something," a CeaseFire leader says afterwards. The police, we are told, have never been a help. Nor can they be now be counted on to intervene.
But the film itself serves as a vivid plea for the rest of the country to pay a little more attention, to resist simply getting swept up in the next tragedy and forget about the last, and to remember that the problems we see broadcast on the nightly news and splashed on the front pages of papers don't disappear as quickly from the world as they do from the news cycle.
The film shows us pastel stuffed animals piled under trees, under cars, against walls, alongside the road, candles lit in rows, wide sheets of paper covered up completely with notes to the deceased -- memorials for people, often teenagers, who have already passed. The catalogue of grief suggests not only the breadth of violence in the area, but also a kind of numbness that has set in, especially for the peers of the dead.
"I am next," reads one brick on a memorial wall.
A local funeral director, who notes that 90 percent of the homicides in the area are young people, describes how mourners at the funerals put themselves in the position of the person in the casket, wondering if they will be so well cared for after their deaths.
Li'l Mikey, one of Cobe's mentees who has just been released from jail after holding up a barber shop with friends, seems less conflicted than Caprysha about his desire to change his life. Reunited with his family after two years in jail, he vows never to miss one of their graduations again.
With Cobe, he returns to the shop to apologize to the men and women he robbed. The woman at the barbershop breaks down as she takes in his apology, and it's impossible to tell how the encounter will go.
As she cries, she tells Li'l Mikey that he doesn't understand the impact his actions had, the fear that her co-worker felt when he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her if she called the police, the helplessness she felt when she wanted to protect her children. But she hugs him, at the end.
"I am glad you are a changed man," she says.
One afternoon, Eddie walks down the street where he shot a man, looking around the quiet row of houses and says, "This block has claimed a lot of lives." Though we have just seen Li'l Mikey face the people he hurt before and receive some small measure of forgiveness, Eddie has not yet been able to reach out to the family of the man he killed.
"The Interrupters" seems less concerned with selling us an easy tale of redemption where everyone resolves their past mistakes and all the children are saved, and more concerned with making us understand that we cannot judge the decisions of another human being without understanding why they made them.
When we see Flamo after Cobe's intervention, his mood has changed. He is 32, and he has been in jail for 15 years, he says. His friends are in jail, and he has nothing to show for his life so far.
"I'm trying to be the one telling the one telling the story," Flamo says. "I don't want to be the one on the street struggling."