Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
The mean streets of inner city Chicago are no place to find yourself in a fight, and an even worse place to try to break one up. Yet that's exactly the mission of a small ragtag group of self-proclaimed "violence interrupters" known as CeaseFire. The members of CeaseFire have extensive street cred (at one point during one of their meetings, it's mentioned that there's hundreds of years of combined prison time at that table), which is not only vital but key in doing what they're attempting to do. As they say early in the film, they're not out to shut down gangs or change the world, they're simply looking to stop isolated incidents of violence before someone gets hurt or killed. And that's exactly what we see them do throughout this engrossing if overlong documentary. (The running time is just over two hours.)
"The Interrupters" is directed by veteran documentarian Steve James, maker of "Hoop Dreams". As skilled as James obviously is at getting his subjects to open up naturally onscreen, how he got his cameras into some of the hot-button places and situations glimpsed throughout the film is a mystery to me. His structure is impeccable, laying everything matter-of-factly out on the table with no trace of exaggeration or manipulation. We are first introduced to dangerous inner city Chicago, where we are told that street violence is an out of control epidemic. Then we witness the funeral for a young boy who was pointlessly killed far before his time. We quickly then find out about the violence interrupters, an independent organization that just might be the city's most realistic hope at curbing the killings. From there, we get to know various members of CeaseFire, each compelling in their own particular way.

The single most memorable individual in the film has to be ace violence interrupter Ameena Matthews, a tough-talking streetwise Muslim woman with an obvious heart of gold. Director James ceases upon Matthews, never letting the sprawling rest of the film veer too far from her. The speechifying way that Matthews reduces enraged street combatants to mumbling piles of mush before moving them to a momentary truce and sending them on their way would be dismissed as too hokey to be believed in any work of fiction. Yet, with her steely eyes of authority and unmistakable voice of experience, her effectiveness is never doubted. Watching Matthews pursue, befriend, and work hard to build up the shattered self-image of one troubled girl is the heart of "The Interrupters", a film with enough urgency in its subject matter that "heart" isn't any kind of requirement in the fabric of its importance. But it is a vital aspect of its long-term power, as harrowing statistics and troubling footage only move viewers for so long.

By embracing the person-to-person relationships (as difficult as they always are) as opposed to merely horrifying us with yet more true-life meaningless death and mayhem, James has taken a cue from the violence interrupters themselves. "The Interrupters" topic is about as serious of one as a documentary could have, yet James finds real hope, as the arcs of several individuals pay off not in maudlin ways, but in ways satisfying enough to them and to us; a testament to CeaseFire, shown to be a beautifully selfless organization that may just shut down some gangs in spite of their own dictate. In a summer of bigger-than-life cinematic super heroes, it's a breath of fresh air to end the season by meeting a few very real, down to earth heroes.

- Jim Tudor

The Interrupters

  • Steve James
  • Alex Kotlowitz (New York Times magazine article)
  • Tio Hardiman
  • Ameena Matthews
  • Toya Batey
  • Cobe Williams
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Steve JamesAlex KotlowitzTio HardimanAmeena MatthewsToya BateyCobe WilliamsDocumentaryCrime

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