Directed By: Steve James
Produced By: Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James
Featuring: Ameena Matthews, Tio Hardiman, Eddie Bocanegra, and Ricardo Williams
Director of Photography: Steve James
Rated: Unrated, but it features language and a scene of shocking gang violence.
What does it mean to be a violence interrupter? This group, the focus of a new documentary called The Interrupters, has one focus: stop people from killing each other. They don’t try to break up gangs, or set up curfews, or teach drug awareness. They instead set themselves up as the last line of defense between two men and a gun. And if you’ve been looking for a real superhero this summer, forget Steve Rodgers and Hal Jordan; the real superhero of the summer is Ameena Matthews and the other subjects of this sublime work of real life caught on film.
The Interrupters is directed by Steve James, best remembered for his 1994 basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. Mr. James has returned to the same part of South Side Chicago, but instead of showing us a glimpse of the American dream, this is the American tragedy. Late in the film, Tio Gardiman, who runs the violence interrupters (a chapter of a group called CeaseFire), discusses the irony of having a black president in office when violence between African Americans, especially in Chicago, has reached staggering rates.
The film takes place over a year, where we focus on three particular interrupters. The one that you can’t take your eyes off of is Ms. Matthews. In her early forties and always covered in a hijab, Ms. Matthews, a former gang lord and daughter of one of Chicago’s most infamous criminals, is a godsend of a woman. She talks street to these kids in a way they understand, points out holes in their logic, and can switch between signs of great empathy for those who need to feel loved (particularly one parentless teen she takes under her wing) and furious anger. In the film’s best scene, Ms. Matthews talks to a group of thugs looking for revenge of the murder of a young boy. Ms. Matthews stares them boldly in the eyes and delivers a speech that transcends primal instincts. When she grabs a young boy in the gang and claims that he will learn all he sees, she simply exclaims, “Teach him righteous!”
Amen, sister! What separates Mr. James’s approach for other “atrocity documentaries” is that Mr. James isn’t just showing a problem from a privileged distance view; he’s right there on the streets, camera in hand, and showing us both sides of the logic. It helps that the three interrupters are not simply kids who don’t understand the problem. One of them—a Latino named Eddie Bocanegra—is still fighting his own demons over a man he shot over a decade ago. Mr. James links us to characters instead of the bigger picture, and we get a sense of both furious anger toward this type of situation, as well as horrifying sympathy for those trying to do whatever they can to keep young boys out of caskets.
Late in the film, one man tells one of the interrupters, “I had bout 3 or 4 guys lined up, but I had you in my ear the entire time.” The Interrupters is a stunningly insightful look at how gang violence is destroying a community and the few who truly understand how the problem works. We’re only a few weeks in to Mayor Emanuel’s new curfew law, but I think Tio, Ameena, and the rest would agree that such top down regulation is not the answer. Mr. James and crew instead show that the real fight is on the streets, not with the hammer of control, but the powerful sense of empathy and understanding.