I see a lot of bad documentaries about good people. Some of the most boring docs are about the most interesting people because their filmmakers simply assume that their subjects’ greatness will transfer to their documentary through some sort of cinematic osmosis. Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz, director and producer of the new documentary “The Interrupters,” do not make that mistake.
Their subjects are good people — flawed, but good — working to end the disease of violence in Chicago. But James and Kotlowitz don’t just get a couple talking head interviews with these men and women, throw in a few experts on crime and gang violence, and call it a day. They spent a year with these so-called “violence interrupters,” insinuating themselves into their lives and their work. We get to know who they are, what they’ve done, and what they continue to do for the city of Chicago. “The Interrupters” is about an important issue and important people, but it doesn’t parade its importance like a medal of honor. It never forgets it’s a movie first, and its job is to do more than educate: it must entertain and move as well as enlighten.
The violence interrupters work for a Chicago organization named CeaseFire. Founded by an epidemiologist, the violence interrupters’ work is founded on the idea that crime works like a viral infection and that the best way to defeat it is to combat it accordingly: by stopping it at its point of transmission. That’s why the interrupters work with their community to literally interrupt disputes: they interject themselves into arguments and mediate conflict or target the victims of violent crime and counsel them in the hopes of staving off retaliatory attacks. This is incredibly dangerous work; in one scene, an interrupter breaks up a dispute and winds up in the hospital with multiple gunshot wounds. Though their primary metaphor is disease, you might also say that the interrupters are also street-level bomb diffusers; every time they go out on the job lives, including their own, are on the line. But when the interrupters are successful they can not only save lives in the short-term, they can change them for the better in the long-term.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the interrupters’ work are the interrupters themselves, who are all former violent offenders. James and Kotlowitz’s three main subjects are all reformed criminals who have found a productive outlet for their experiences as gangsters, hustlers, and murderers as interrupters. Their experience and their history gives them an edge when talking to someone considering violence that you or I would never have. There’s Ameena, the daughter of an infamous Chicago gang leader, and a fearless woman who will interject herself into a group of twenty-five men and challenging their manhood. Jovial Cobe works his phone like a Hollywood agent, constantly looking for the next gig; he deflates incidents with common sense and absurd humor. And finally Eddie, the newest interrupter of the three, works to stop crime before it starts, by speaking with young children to teach them how to avoid and learn from gang violence at an early age. Any one of these interrupters would be a good enough subject for their own movie, but James and Kotlowitz expertly blend all three, along with some of their more troubled clients, into a massive and compelling tapestry of life on the streets of Chicago.
They accompany Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie on the job and capture some extraordinary footage: a fight raging out of control between some angry women; a young man, fresh out of prison, with the courage to confront the people he wronged and apologize to them; a man who wants to retaliate after police have wronged his family, convinced to drop the matter thanks to wise advice of an interrupter. With the richness of character of a great novel and the crackerjack suspense of a good thriller, “The Interrupters” is never less than totally engaging. The interrupters do good work, but that’s just one of many reasons why this is a very good film.