Monday, June 18, 2012

The Interrupters

Movie Review: The Interrupters

Director:  Steve James

Reviewed: 17 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

My first teaching job was at an inner-city school located on the border of Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor, a line of demarcation in Houston between a predominantly African-American population and a Hispanic population.  McReynolds Middle School was not as violent as it could have been.  Yes, there were fights in the cafeteria.  Yes, there were rocks thrown from one side to the other over the railroad tracks. Yes, there was tension.  Years before I arrived, Ms. Shapiro, our sixth grade level chair who helped guide me through my first year of teaching, recalled getting chipped in the face with cement from a bullet that passed through her window.  My classroom, room 202, faced Market Street, and during my four years at that remarkable and terrible school, no bullets were fired into or around the school.  But Fifth Ward and Denver Harbor remain neighborhoods in Houston where students are more likely to be awakened by the sound of gunfire.  Journal entries touched upon cliques, getting jumped, protecting one's self, as well as drugs.  It was a world unfamiliar to me and my suburban Chicago upbringing.  Sure, I saw fights occasionally, bullying on a nearly daily level, and in my four years at my high school the school had nearly been burned down once and tear gas released in the hallway once.  But the school year of 2000 to 2001 was one of the first times that I started to realize the hidden America, the hidden communities and stories that didn't appear in the newspaper, Hollywood films, or my rudimentary understanding of life.

Steve James's remarkable documentary The Interrupters exists in the unseen neighborhoods of Chicago (Englewood, Altgeld Gardens, Little Village) in places I had to look up on google maps to see if I knew where they existed or had ever driven through them.  Often times, I had never been to or through these places.  This documentary is not a Chicago film in the sense that there are recognizable shots of Soldier Field, the Lake, deep dish pizza, Grant Park, or Michigan Avenue.  The closest this world of Chicago resembles my world is when a person wears a Back-To-Back Bulls Championship t-shirt from 1992 that I remember my uncle selling or the omnipresent Chicago White Sox hats (which has moved far beyond being a sign of fandom or regionalism).  This film really depicts the unseen neighborhoods of any major urban center (a Houston, a New York City, a Philadelphia, an Atlanta, an Oakland) and its focus on a fresh solution offers promise while tempered with the utter brutality of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.  Steve James dives deeply into these difficult ideas, offering no easy solutions.  His landmark documentary Hoop Dreams captured the zeitgeist of the nineties and the Jordan era in Chicago as he chronicled for many years two young inner-city basketball players tried unsuccessfully to make it to the NBA.  A follow-up film Stevie dealt with Steve James's complicated relationship with a troubled mentee from his times in college through the Big Brothers program and their reunion years later as adults.  Never one to shy away from the unseen and unvoiced communities in America and their stories, in this film, Steve James and his camera crew follow three members of the violence prevention program CeaseFire as they work from their base at UIC and target specific neighborhoods with their goal of interrupting violence.  CeaseFire's audacious goal is to disrupt the automatic, almost Pavlovian response of violence to violence (Stop the Killing! read the stickers), as well as serve as a sounding board for the community who at times feels abandoned and neglected.

Mediators Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are the heart of this film, and James follows them as they approach the mean streets of Chicago with the full force of their perspectives and life choices.  Ameena hits the hardest, marching into a group of young men gathering for possible retaliation after a funeral of a fallen friend, barking out commands and questions to them; Ameena, the daughter of a top drug lord in Chicago and a current Muslim woman and mother, exists as fearless and undeniable.  Cobe may cut the deepest, with his low-key, lower-the-temperature-in-the-room conversational style, at one point just trying to get Flamo, a man hellbent on retaliation, to just go grab food with him, distancing the man from the emotions driving him to seek revenge.  Eddie, a convicted murderer, strikes at the younger generation, working with elementary school students at Namaste Charter School, channeling their emotions and responses to violence through artwork, as well as counseling a middle school girl navigating her grief and culpability regarding her brother's recent murder.

Steve James infuses the film with a natural sense of the microcosm and the macrocosm.  Ameena takes a young girl to get her nails done, reminding her that she is beautiful, and has to support her return to school.  Cobe returns to the scene of an armed robbery with a guilty young man who wants to apologize to the people he hurt and look them in the eye.  Eddie visits a gravesite of a young man, delivering a white rose to them to place on the grave, hearing that the family prays there everyday.  Occasionally, the documentarian zooms out of the community and shows Mayor Daley at a press conference or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responding to a brutal killing caught on cell phone camera or Jesse Jackson organizing a march, but for the bulk of the film, Steve James sticks with the community, the founders of CeaseFire, and the men (predominantly men) sitting around a table batting around solutions and talking through tactics.  I drew parallels to the scene in Moneyball this past year where Billy Beane and his baseball scouts wrestle with unconventional thinking and modern sports.  In The Interrupters, CeaseFire wrestles with the unconventional stopping incidents of violence before they happen, counseling grieving families, healing  (albeit sometimes temporarily) rifts where no church or support system seems able to make a dent.  Two powerful moments in the powerful film include a fight breaking out in front of a CeaseFire headquarters during a meeting which Steve James captures in riveting footage, as well as a family argument among two warring brothers from different cliques and their frustrated mother all taking place in the back of a mini-van driven by an increasingly worried Cobe Williams.  These scenes punctuate the severity of the disease of violence (brother versus brother, families abandoning each other, resignation), as well as the need for dialogue, for counseling, for acknowledgement of pain and for listening.

One tactic that raises this documentary to an even more philosophical level is the consideration of violence as a disease, and Steve James zooms in for two of the stories on the notion of work giving a person value.  Two men seem invigorated by their honest work, one a security worker at the Racine El stop, one an assistant at a day care center.  Honest work, honest jobs, being valued are undercurrents to this documentary, and unpacking the roots of violence and handling disrespect is far greater than one film can tackle.  As one politician seems poised to ask the National Guard to swoop in and provide security, an angry community member asks, "Where are the jobs?" suggesting that breakdown of family, breakdown of infrastructure, breakdown of community are all interrelated with lack of employment and investment.

Why does it take a thoughtful, methodical movie documentary from Steve James and acclaimed writer Alex Kotlowitz to push these issues to the forefront?  One of the strengths of The Interrupters is the ability to see the brutal facts that their organization does good work and makes a difference while also showing it as a band-aid to a gushing wound.  CeaseFire may not be the answer to such a complex issue, but their work on a molecular level in the community is helping people and saving lives.  As any good film does, it raises many more questions than it answers, particularly CeaseFire's tenuous relationship with the Chicago Police Department.

A film that provokes deep thought and continues to affect public policy and social change, The Interrupters is one of the finest films of the year, a film that needs to be seen.

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