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The Interrupters (Steve James, 2011)


Many documentaries aspire to raise social consciousness, but few manage to be as stirring as The Interrupters, Steve James’ one-year look at grass roots crime prevention measures being undertaken in Chicago. Focusing on the efforts of three self-described “violence interrupters,” who offer dispute resolution services to volatile inner-city residents, the film creates an expansive portrait of a community that has been largely written off and begins to shed light on some reasons why traditional solutions to the problem of street violence might be failing. Although not radical in form, The Interrupters is certainly radical in its politics, suggesting that urban minorities are not nearly as disempowered as most forms of media would suggest.


It’s lazy critical shorthand to point out that good documentaries often feature better characterizations than even the best fiction films, but The Interrupters certainly justifies such a cliché. The fiercely outspoken Ameena Matthews, in particular, is likely to stay with viewers long after the film ends. Her forceful harangues, whether delivered to a group of young gang members swarming outside of a prayer vigil or at the funeral of an innocent boy caught in the crossfire of a gang attack, articulate the outrage and need for change that most members of her community cannot. Matthews’ ability to leverage her criminal past into do-gooder credibility and her utter fearlessness are genuinely inspiring. While she is anything but a one-woman team, she is a genuine force. At the same time, however, James is careful enough to show that Matthews’ good work takes more than hot air. Scenes in which she sensitively serves as a role model to an eighteen year old child of abuse suggest that the problems that afflict her community cannot be solved by viewing its members as statistics.


Almost as striking as the film’s content is how well-assembled it is. Its structural repetitions don’t grate, but instead demonstrate how frustrating The Interrupters’ task is. Despite the logistical challenge of detailing a year in the struggles of three violence interrupters, the film still finds small, heart-rending grace notes and disarming observational moments from time to time. While the work of The Interrupters is noble, it is not presented as a solution so much as a stopgap. Rather than try to dictate change through policy, these community leaders are concerned with approaching the behavioral problem of street crime realistically, on a case-by-case basis. Writing about the stoic bravery of the subjects of The Interrupters would inevitably suggest a less level-headed film than James has made. Still, there’s no denying that his very necessary and absorbing documentary has captured just that quality in his everyday heroes.



Jeremy Heilman