Inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James' commanding documentary The Interrupters, about "violence interrupters" in Chicago who intervene in conflicts before they escalate into gunshots, unfolds as deeply reported journalism. Much like Hoop Dreams (1994), James' in-depth examination of the athletic aspirations of two African-American high school students, The Interrupters reminds us of the powers and pleasures of well-crafted, immersive nonfiction filmmaking — a genre vitiated within the past five years by a glut of cruddy-looking, poorly researched and argued titles.
Spanning the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2010 (plus an epilogue), James'film follows the work of CeaseFire, an organization founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who equates violence with an infectious disease, insisting that its spread can be combated the way one would contain an outbreak of cholera or TB: by going after, as Kotlowitz (who serves as producer and also collaborated on interviews and sound) explains in his article, the most infected areas and stopping the sickness at its source.
Slutkin, an unassuming man with a hard Midwestern honk, appears onscreen only briefly, mainly to explain the advantages of shifting the focus of violent behavior from a moral stance (good versus bad people) to a neutral public-health issue. Though the film might have benefited from a deeper discussion of Slutkin's intriguing approach — or at least from an interview with an expert who questions the efficacy of the doctor's unconventional framework — the heart of The Interrupters isn't policy debate but the steadfast efforts of three CeaseFire workers. Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra all have criminal pasts, like most of the organization's outreach employees; their histories give them not just street cred but an understanding of how to defuse volatile disputes among family members, neighbors and schools. CeaseFire, as The Interrupters points out more than once, isn't a substitute for the police, or even a partner; indeed, the group operates at times within a gray area. The focus, as one worker explains, "isn't trying to dismantle gangs but to save a life" — in other words, to stop a trigger from being pulled.
Unlike a majority of recent high-profile documentaries (especially those by Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim), The Interrupters doesn't rely on cute graphics or charts to convey its facts or point of view; James trusts that his audience is patient and intelligent enough to piece together Chicago's history of violence simply by watching — and listening to — what's onscreen. Following Nabokov's advice to "caress the detail, the divine detail," James cuts frequently to the makeshift shrines that appear after a killing: the ratty stuffed animals, empty bottles of Hennessy and Magic Marker-scrawled poems on posterboard that serve as one of the few means of public mourning for communities that have been vilified, abandoned and largely denied a voice — areas like Englewood and Altgeld Gardens, where, as a funeral director explains, "young people don't expect to live past 30."
James' attention to specifics extends to Matthews, Williams and Bocanegra, our guides through four seasons in hell. We follow each as they doggedly try to broker peace, extol the virtues of stepping back and cooling off, and reflect on their own past mistakes. The head-scarved Matthews, the daughter of an infamous Chicago gang leader and once a dope runner before embracing Islam, is the film's most forthright, charismatic subject, shown trying to talk sense to an 18-year-old young woman in and out of correctional facilities — tough love that includes a trip to the mall for a manicure. Baby-faced teddy bear Williams, who served time for drug-related charges and attempted murder, aids a woman hiding out from her own adolescent sons and guides a 17-year-old as he apologizes to the barbershop employees he terrorized during a holdup. Viewing his work with CeaseFire as penance for the murder he committed as a teenager, Bocanegra, tearing up, explains his seemingly infinite capacity to listen and help: "I stay busy to stay out of bullshit and forget some of the foolish things I done." It's a blunt, moving statement, one of many made by extraordinary men and women who refuse to give up.
At press time, the filmmakers announced that the version of The Interrupters that would be released in theaters is 20 minutes shorter than what was screened for our critic.