The Interrupters, a heartbreaking, empowering documentary about inner-city violence, plunges you headlong into one of Chicagos most crime-ridden neighborhoods a deadly landscape of gang bangers, drug dealers, innocent victims and mourning families.
Inspired by a 2008 New York Times article by Alex Kotlowitz (who served as producer), filmmaker Steve James (the great Hoop Dreams) spent a year following CeaseFire, a community group founded in 1995 to prevent street shootings and violence.
James trains his cameras on three violence interrupters: Ameena Matthews, the daughter of notorious gang leader Jeff Fort and a reformed gang enforcer; Ricardo Cobe Williams, who spent 12 years in prison for drug trafficking; and Eddie Bocanegra, who served a 14-year sentence for murder.
One of the first things that strikes you about these courageous people, who constantly confront volatile, gun-carrying thugs, is that they outgrew their violent pasts and now live contented lives with their families. They are living testaments that reform can work.
But the battle they wage at times seems unwinnable. In one scene, CeaseFire founder Dr. Gary Slutkin compares the factors that perpetuate violence to the invisible germ that once perpetuated tuberculosis: Black-on-black violence committed by teens and young adults is a disease that can be eradicated but must be attacked at the root.
That is exactly what the interrupters attempt to do, intervening with warring brothers who belong to rival gangs or a sad-eyed, heavy-set girl who lives in a house filled with violent teens and appears to have given up on her future.
We got over 500 years of prison time at this table, one of the members of CeaseFire says during a group meeting (most of the people in the organization have rap sheets). But for all their street smarts, they are left speechless when the national media reports on cases such as the videotaped beating death of high-school student Derrion Albert at the hands of fellow students.
The Interrupters runs almost three hours, but the length is necessary to amass the detail that lends power and dimension to the problem these heroes are battling.
It also makes time for powerful moments such as a scene in which 17-year-old Lil Mikey Davis, fresh from prison, visits the barber shop he held up at gunpoint and apologizes to the employees. In Davis handsome, stoic face, you see posturing give way to earnest regret. The scene is a fleeting triumph, and this long, absorbing movie is filled with moments like it.
With: Ameena Matthews, Eddie Bocanegra, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, Tio Hardiman.
Director: Steve James.
Producers: Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James.
Running time: 164 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. Plays at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Tower and 3:45 p.m. Saturday at Regal South Beach.