Brick after brick, the septic yellow wall unfurls across the screen. Black, etched names mark each jaundiced square. They are the names of the dead; the youth killed in violence. The camera slows and holds. Amongst the names, a hand-scrawled declaration: “I am next.”
Urban violence in Chicago is not breaking news. Gangs, drug wars, and dead youth seem like stagnant problems of the city. Most visitors know to hold their purses tight and avoid the slummy neighborhoods. So, what would it be like to spend a year in the life of a city grappling with violence, crime, and death?
Steve James’ 2011 documentary film, The Interrupters, thrusts audiences into the lives and stories of three “violence interrupters”. The featured three, Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra work for a Chicago violence prevention organization called CeaseFire. The job of an interrupter is vast. Sometimes it requires entering heated arguments between rivaling gangs, visiting and gaining the trust of families with violent pasts, and attending funerals to calm anguished mourners and prevent violent retaliations. Although the job takes many forms, in the end, their goal is to encourage communication and stop violence. The crucial notion behind the interrupters is their previous engagement with gangs, crime, and even in rare cases, homicide, that they abandoned in order to help the youth of their hometown. The interrupters’ experience and knowledge of the emotions and pride that lay within youth and gangs provide them with the power to penetrate these young minds. They rely on trust built over time, the right use of words, and their own confidence.
It takes incredible courage to stride into the middle of an inflamed and growing dispute, threats flying from both sides, and to put a stop to it. “You gotta play it like a big man,” Ameena confidently informs an angered young man prowling for revenge, his large stature looming over her petite figure that seems to disappear once her ardent voice commands the room. “I swear to God I wish I had someone to holla at me like I’m hollering at you.” Ameena’s urban voice reveals itself when she speaks to the youth, an astute decision that nurtures their trust in her.
Many shades of slang and accent color our glimpse in the city. The documentary is strongly character-driven, observant, and watchful.
Within the vulnerable enclosure of a funeral, we watch: a family holding back tears and a stream of red hats and boys posing with the young body. All we can see of the victim is the 7 1/2 sticker on his red flat brim hat. We realize this was a gang related murder. After the eulogies, Ameena takes the stage to warn the friends and family against retaliation. Although it is a day of mourning, her firm, straight-forward method is not swayed. “We real talkin’ up in here, cus Duke is real.” Ameena’s talent is taking a stance of authority while still treating her listeners as equals.
The camera doesn’t ask the questions, the viewer does. James brings a brilliant, seemingly silent eye to the streets and homes of Chicago. We are thrust in the middle of a heated fight between rivals, at the door of an anguished man slamming his fist against his house, next to grieving parents at their child’s funeral, and even within the uncomfortable, embarrassing silences where words mean nothing.
Unlike most documentaries, the silences are not cut out. Are there any words that can comfort a family who has visited the grave of their son daily for the past month? What should Tio Hardman, the director of the Illinois CeaseFire branch, say to an interrupter who lies limply in a hospital bed, wounded by a gunshot from doing his job? These painful moments where both parties, with lowered eyes, look lost for words. Tio leaves quietly, a silence that will probably fill his following nights with restless remorse. Tio, who usually has so many wise words and constant insight to yield to his interrupters, is finally at a loss. We see that, despite the interrupters incredible talents and CeaseFire’s astounding research, there is no resolute answer to these problems.
The Interrupters has been criticized for it’s lack of analysis on gang violence and urban crime. Although there are moments of analysis in the beginning of the film, marking the evolution of the interrupters mission, this is not the real intention of James’ film. This documentary immerses the viewer into the characters lives. It’s easy to forget they are real. The viewer’s analysis of the situations rise as naturally as an interpretation or sensation from a fictional narrative.
Although emotionally draining at times, the movie reveals incredibly hopeful moments that are hard not to smile at. The Interrupters not only divulges the intense trial of living in an urban neighborhood rampant with crime, demanding more attention for this often glanced over problem, but it uncovers rare moments of intense human trial and growth. The documentary may leave you heavy with concern, but the strength, intelligence, and poignant honesty of the interrupters make this film a portrait of humanity that transcends a single social issue.