Review: Documentary ‘The Interrupters’ offers harrowing, uplifting look at urban violence

“Hoop Dreams” is one of the great populist documentaries of all time, a movie that worked as absorbing narrative and important social commentary, and while I like the subsequent films that Steve James has made, “Stevie” and “Reel Paradise” are much more genial, low-key, personable films. 

The thing that made “Hoop Dreams” so hard to shake was the way it refused to play out according to the narrative rules that are ingrained in each and every one of us by the time we’re adult moviegoers.  Real life, captured with all of its difficult contradictions intact, is a shock to the system when we recognize it on a movie screen.  We’re used to the various filters of bullshit that are part of film storytelling, and one of the hardest things for any filmmaker to do, even when they’re shooting a documentary, is to set all of those filters aside and find something honest and real and somehow capture it without killing it.  If “Hoop Dreams” remained the high watermark for Steve James, that would be a tremendous legacy all by itself.  Thankfully, “The Interrupters” is solid proof that James really is a gifted documentarian who can hit hard when he’s got the right story to tell, and it’s an important look at people doing selfless, challenging work that puts them in harm’s way every single day.

With “Hoop Dreams,” James captured a particular moment in American urban life, painting a picture of a system that offered few ways out and that pressure that puts on the kids who get close but who don’t quite make it.  It was heartbreaking, but punctuated with moments of hope, and it stuck with me for a long time after I saw it.  This new film was inspired by an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, written by Alex Kotlowitz, and Kotlowitz was a key collaborator in the film.  I can see why James was drawn to this story.  CeaseFire is an organization that is determined to find a way to interrupt the cycles of violence that seem to exist in certain communities, and watching the way the members of the group go about that task is illuminating, because it speaks to root cause instead of just symptoms, something that seems to be beyond the abilities of many people approaching social problems these days.  Set in Chicago, this film covers a far shorter period of time than “Hoop Dreams” did, but it packs just as strong a punch.

Gary Slutkin, the founder of the group, is one of the many people we meet in the film, and he’s actually not a major part of the movie.  He explains the origins of the idea of “violence interrupters,” and it’s a fairly radical approach to a problem.  Viewing violence as a communicable disease that can be attacked at the source is certainly a different approach, and if the film were interested in debating that idea and using experts in the field to really dig deep, that might make an interesting movie.  Instead, James focuses most of his attention on Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, three of the people who are on the actual front lines of CeaseFire.  Their job is to put themselves in the middle of heated situations in an attempt to stop violence, not in the hypothetical, but in the actual moment it’s about to occur.  They are there, on the streets, and they are people who have had first-hand experience with violence in the past.  They understand the real weight of violence, and they know what it does to families, to individuals, to neighborhoods.  They are working every day to keep other people from making the very real mistakes they’ve made, because they have paid that price, and they can’t just sit back while it continues.

There is an outsider’s perspective that many documentaries, even the most well-meaning of them, sometimes impose on stories of inner-city life, and it’s impressive how James is able to keep himself and his voice out of this film completely.  It’s not important how James feels about this, or what James thinks about this, and we live in an age where the documentary is often more about the maker than the subject.  This is journalism, a record of something real, and what makes James a better-than-average documentarian is that careful remove as well as his remarkable eye for detail.  I feel like I know these people and their lives intimately now.  Ameena Matthews, whose father was a notorious gang leader in Chicago, is a tough subject, a smart but unsentimental speaker, and I love the way she speaks to the young people she’s trying to reach.  She’s not the easiest person in the world to like, I would imagine, especially when she challenges someone over and over, but she is worthy of deep respect, and the film shows the way that respect blooms as well as the way it is earned.

“The Interrupters” is a long film, but it has to be.  It needs room to breathe, to flesh out the communities that they work in, as well as the evolution of conflicts and the way decisions resonate over time.  It is impeccably shot, and I get the feeling patience was a key part of the process here.  It would have been easy for James to stir the drama, push the situations in subtle ways, but instead, he allows things to unfold at their own pace, in their own way.  I’m curious to see if the “Hoop Dreams” connection can create some buzz for this, and if there are audiences who are willing to see something that doesn’t have an easy marketing hook.  I’m also curious to see what long-term results there are as a result of the work that CeaseFire does.  These are people who do what they do not for money or for recognition, but because they have to.  They cannot stand by and watch their friends and neighbors destroy themselves, and they cannot wait for someone from outside to save them.  More than anything, “The Interrupters” is the story of how we have to look to ourselves for answers, and how hard those answers may be to face.  It is a must-see, absorbing and unyielding.

“The Interrupters” opens in limited release this Friday.