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"The Interrupters": The Audacity of Hope

Movie Review

The Interrupters (2011) Directed by Steve James

Heart wrenching and gut twisting, “The Interrupters” spends a year in Chicago’s meanest neighborhoods following three individuals committed to stopping the cycle of violence in the inner city.

The protagonists of Steve James’ exhaustive and deeply moving documentary — Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra — are employed by the not-for-profit organization CeaseFire as “violence interrupters.”

Their unenviable job is to leap into confrontational situations — invariably involving young people who have grown up with guns and violence — and defuse them before things turn ugly...and deadly.

James, the co-director of the legendary “Hoop Dreams,” has an astounding ability to be in the right place at the right time while adapting a fly-on-the-wall invisibility — he captures intense moments way beyond the imagination of a Hollywood screenwriter. The results will leave audiences dazed, in tears and torn between hope and despair.

We briefly meet the individuals who created and administer CeaseFire, but the bulk of the film is devoted to the three interrupters and the teens with whom they interact.

One reason this trio are so effective is that they used to live the life. They’ve got street cred.

Matthews is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most famous gang bangers. She was a drug runner who got some education, religion (a Muslim, her head is always covered) and developed a hypnotic speaking style and tough-love approach that resonates with kids.

Williams is a former gang member and ex-con who has moved his family to the suburbs where, his wife jokes, the scariest intruders are deer in the flower garden. Every day, though, Williams works the city streets.

Bocanegra is the least fleshed out of the three, possibly because of his reluctance to delve too deeply into his own past. He spent 14 years in prison for shooting to death a rival gang member; how his specialty is visiting the families of recent murder victims to defuse any thoughts of revenge.

"I stay busy to stay out of bullshit and forget some of the foolish things I done," he says, though at times — as when he revisits the street where he committed murder — he seems a man always just outracing a ghost.

What’s astonishing about these individuals is their unflagging optimism that they can make a difference. They talk about bad situations and bad decisions, but never about bad people. They don’t choose sides in disputes. They never lay blame...that’s counterproductive.

Nor are they part of law enforcement, a fact that often leaves them in a dangerous netherworld.

James captures some great dialogue here — these individuals are part parent, part shrink, part preacher, part teacher — but also excels at the evocative visual moment.

A sequence that examines makeshift sidewalk shrines commemorating murdered children — they are awash in teddy bears and hand-written notes  — is almost too painful to endure.

Watching “The Interrupters” it’s impossible not to put our selves in their shoes. Few of us, we quickly realize, have the dedication, selflessness and pure hope required for the job.

Thank God some people do.

Robert Butler

Robert W. Butler joined the staff of the Kansas City Star in 1970 and from 1977 to 2011 was the paper's movie reviewer.

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