Many documentaries follow a subject over the course of a year; but very few convert this structural device into a deep emotional current, pulling you into the most solemn possibilities of people’s choices in life, and into the pains and hopes of a whole community. The changing of the seasons takes on this force in The Interrupters, the new film by Steve James (a member of the Hoop Dreams team) and author Alex Kotlowitz. It is explicitly a film about cycles: recurring patterns of weather (always a big concern in Chicago, where the film is set), of loss and recrimination between the generations and especially of murder in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods, where injuries (real or perceived) lead to killing, which leads to retaliation, which leads to still more death.
Attempting to break this cycle of violence are the main subjects of The Interrupters: former gang members, now in their middle years, who are employed by an organization called CeaseFire to intervene in disputes. It’s a tough business. Cops sometimes suspect the Interrupters of covering for street criminals; people in the neighborhoods sometimes suspect the Interrupters of snitching to the police; and the situations that call for intervention are always ready to flare into attacks against the Interrupters themselves. As a CeaseFire member observes, there is no way to mediate without confrontation.
Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the sheer pervasiveness of the violence, which the film suggests through two alarming episodes edited into the first minutes. First, when James and his crew are filming a meeting in CeaseFire’s Englewood field office, on the South Side, a fight erupts right outside, involving milling antagonists, a serious knife and a substantial chunk of concrete. Then, when James is a few miles further south in Roseland, filming a protest rally occasioned by the murder of a teenager, the police cars abruptly turn on their sirens and race off, summoned to a fresh homicide a few blocks away. You see and hear evidence of omnipresent mayhem. Meanwhile, you begin to make the close acquaintance of three people who are strong enough, each in a different way, to step up and stop it.
Ameena Matthews, a slight woman who wears the hijab, identifies herself early on as a former drug-ring enforcer and (more to the point) the daughter of Jeff Fort—a gangland name that sends chills through most Chicagoans. At various times you see Matthews face down an entire crowd of revenge-minded young men (who know enough to call her “ma’am”); exhort teenagers at a funeral to stop putting one another in caskets; and try and fail, and try and fail again, to help a damaged young woman in whom she sees herself. Cobe Williams, whose genial face is beginning to plump up, has a more relaxed style than Ameena (his wife calls him a nerd), as well as a less terrifying history. He merely did three stretches in prison for drug charges and attempted murder, after losing his father to a gunman. The most moving of Cobe’s interventions are with a hothead appropriately called Flamo (who is eventually persuaded to cool down, over the course of months) and a teenager recently released from prison who is determined to change his life. Finally there is Eddie Bocanegra (gang leader, car thief and murderer), who became a visual artist in prison and now greets every day as a blessed opportunity for penance. You mostly see Eddie, with his almost professorial air, working at a middle school (where he does art projects with the kids on the subject of violence) and visiting the cemetery. He keeps the mourners company.
These are the key people in The Interrupters. The key settings are the homemade memorials that crop up everywhere: sidewalk congregations of stuffed toy animals, empty Hennessy bottles and makeshift wooden crosses, gathered before backdrops of farewell messages written on poster board. Or sometimes the messages are marked on the sides of buildings. In Altgeld Gardens, a wall has the name of a different victim inscribed on every brick—except for the brick that says, in tiny letters, I Am Next.