The Interrupters

If alcoholism and obesity are diseases, then why isn’t violence? Violence is caused by a behavioral disorder created by human beings. Like a contagious virus, violence spreads through our communities until we are all dead.

We treat it with words, with punishments and with more bullets. We need to eradicate it from our streets. We need the logic of science and reason to end this epidemic. We need to understand violence, not fear it. It must be targeted at its source.

The Violence Interrupters of Chicago’s Englebrook neighborhood adhere to this mindset. They’ve been infected with this plague before and survived it. They are the Dirty Dozen vigilantes doing what the police and professional counselors are not because they know it first hand.

Their story as told in “The Interrupters” is a riveting, emotional and powerful documentary that embeds itself on these Chicago streets and finds answers.

It follows the work of CeaseFire, an organization composed of reformed gang members who work to stop violence before the local news shows up. They get results because they know these people, ask the right questions and say the right things. They command respect.

Cobe Williams has done time for pushing drugs. Ameena Matthews is the daughter of Jeff Fort, Chicago’s all time most powerful gang leader after Al Capone. Eddie Bocanegra served 14 years in prison for murder. They didn’t find spiritual awakenings in prison; they just got sick of loss.

Their understanding of the streets is that violence is caused from little more than a grievance. You watch these people navigate this suburb and realize that they have a more powerful sense of community than anywhere in Chicago. Everyone knows their neighbors, their allies and their rivals, and an insult can instantly harm a person’s pride and standing in this community. Words and anger get thrown around so easily, but because there is no other outlet, bullets get thrown around even easier.

So why then do cops arrive after a crime is committed? Why do book smart people come into Englewood and believe they can change the community? CeaseFire knows better. They know violence is an unavoidable part of life, but they know it’s not the only answer. Why appeal to morality when you can appeal to common sense? The violence on the street is all about identity. Addressing that is the wrong way to eliminate violence. You can’t take away identity.

What’s amazing is watching these people in action. When Ameena surrounds herself with a group of gangbangers twice her size, she talks, and people listen. She’s a natural leader who demands attention and grabs it by the balls. In another life, she used this power for violence, and now she prevents it.

But the news doesn’t report the preventions. There are no numbers for those not killed. When the philosophy is “if it bleeds, it leads,” only the deaths make the news. And that’s been true of most documentaries as well.

“The Interrupters” however doesn’t turn any of its subjects into martyrs. We meet families who have lost their kids, but this film knows that everyone has these stories. No one need be victimized or exploited.

Compare that to this year’s “Bully.” That film has no answers. It treats bullying like a systemic problem rather than a cultural one. It treats bullies as monsters. Its approach to change is more pain and sadness.

Director Steve James’s film does more because he too knows these streets. He directed his masterpiece “Hoop Dreams” in this same area over two decades ago, but here he wisely keeps himself out of the film. He doesn’t fit into this world, and he knows it. It allows him to get remarkably up close and personal and immersed in the violence. James is not a fly on the wall. He’s right there, and the insight and depth of these people is emotionally shattering.

His gift as a documentarian is his respect for his subjects. One of the film’s more heated discussions involves two brothers bickering with their mother in the back seat of a van as to how much she provided for them. James treats these scenes with patience and attention. This isn’t trashy, daytime TV. It’s tender and serious, and this is just one of many touching family vignettes.

James is one of the few great documentarians today making no-nonsense films. He’s not Errol Morris with technical flourishes, Werner Herzog with philosophical profoundness, Michael Moore with misleading gimmickry or Davis Guggenheim with cartoonish illustrations. He’s a hard-hitting journalist, and this documentary was actually commissioned by PBS’s Frontline. When Lil Mikey Davis apologizes for holding up a barber shop, James has enough integrity to turn the tables and make the story about Davis’s victim. He gets to the other, intensely emotional side of the issue and finds enough personal interest to not stop at the policy.

“The Interrupters” is a film that sees change happen before the camera. It’s not just talk, and it’s not just pain or violence; it’s action.

4 stars

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