What would you do if you were faced with the prospect of death every day? From its very first minute, “The Interrupters” dives boldly into the grueling streets of inner-city Chicago — a war zone often regarded as a national symbol of youth violence. The documentary tells the story of a community teeming with anxious families who’ve either lost a loved one, or worry about the fate of one. In this dire environment, which often renders even the Chicago Police Department useless, one chance for hope lies with the “violence interrupters,” a group of ex-offenders called CeaseFire that uses street experience to break up violence before it can lead to deaths.
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The documentary primarily follows the work done by three CeaseFire members. Undoubtedly the most persuasive of these is Ameena Matthews, daughter of the infamous gang leader Jeff Fort. Matthews is a fortified presence to be reckoned with and can be regarded as the face and voice of CeaseFire. She’s a strong, vocal individual, both agile and impassioned in her actions. There’s a moment in the film when Matthews senses the beginnings of a fight and immediately confronts the young adults involved about the impact their actions are having on the children around them. She asks them to “do right by” the kids, imparting one of the movie’s most potent messages — violence is taught and children who see violence go on to inflict violence.
Cobe Williams, another CeaseFire member, provides some necessary humor to the documentary’s grave theme. Williams’s subtle methods are almost equally as effective as those of Matthews, and contrary to those of fellow CeaseFire member Eddie Bocanegra. Recently released from prison, Bocanegra is still battling his past — his conflicted youth was influenced primarily by the murder of his father — and realizing the impact violence has on a victim’s family. It’s inspirational to see him stand in the neighborhood in which he committed murder and come to terms with his history. Even more inspiring are his visits to families with lost ones, and his repeated, yet futile, attempts to reach the family of his victim.
Perhaps the only flaw in this movie is its repetitiveness. There are times when some scenes appear to occur several times, only with different subjects. It’s also difficult for Bocanegra and Williams to follow in Matthews’s dynamic footsteps.
These slips aside, “The Interrupters” is a leaping success. Director Steve James’s agenda is not to show the criminals responsible for violence, but to show how victims, who have no choice but to resort to violence, become criminals. James’s restrained cinematography allows the documentary to reveal the critical underlying problems in the community, parenting methods and educational system that result in increasing youth violence. At one point, when Matthews asks kids whether they would fight someone if aggravated, they reply that they would “stand up no matter what happens.” The message is loud and clear — violence is a disease, and it’s contagious.
What makes this documentary even more endearing is that it doesn’t try to give absolute solutions to the problems, or liken the violence interrupters to superheroes. When Matthews’s subject Caprysha struggles to attend school, it’s evident there’s no immediate solution to violence and its repercussions.
But in “The Interrupters,” faith and hope are more important than solutions. There is faith, within CeaseFire, in an individual’s ability to change. There is hope in knowing that the “violence interrupters” will be a constant source of encouragement for the victims. And there is inspiration in knowing that people like Matthews can eventually go on to lead healthy lives. “The Interrupters” presents a disturbing yet optimistic reality of American youth.