Friday, July 29, 2011

The Interrupters: Not So Sweet Home Chicago

Evidently, Chicago desperately needs a Giuliani. Days with multiple shootings are the norm while hope is scarce in its violence plagued inner-city neighborhoods. Though lacking decisive leadership at the top, at least a hardy band of social workers are working doggedly on the micro level, intervening to prevent potential incidents. Three on-the-spot responders for the non-profit organization CeaseFire are followed over the course of a year, up-close and personal, in Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters (trailer here), which opens today in New York at the IFC Center.

Dr. Gary Slutkin founded CeaseFire on the theory urban violence acts like a disease, spreading from person to person like cells in the body. To interrupt a potentially violent situation in effect blocks the transmission process. Whether Slutkin’s theory is valid or not, the so-called “interrupters” are undeniably on the frontlines, attacking the problem of violence at the most immediate juncture. Of course, it is not a path without danger for the Interrupters, as viewers eventually learn.

Director James (the acclaimed documentarian of Hoop Dreams fame) and co-producer Kotlowitz (a journalist whose New York Times Magazine story brought CeaseFire to James attention) largely zero-in on three Interrupters, all of whom renounced a life of crime themselves. In fact, it is that street credibility, for lack of a better term, that allows them to operate effectively.

Ameena Matthews was essentially born into gang life as the daughter of Jeff Fort, the cofounder of the Black P. Stones Gang who was convicted of conspiring with the Libyan regime to commit acts of domestic terrorism in 1987. Cobe Williams resolved to turn his life around after several terms in prison, where he endured the pain of separation from his family. Similarly, Eddie Bocanegra remains wracked with guilt over a murder he committed as a teenager, despite the fourteen year sentence he served.

The drama James captured (serving as the film’s sole cameraman) is real and compelling. Yet, the nihilism and self-aggrandizing behavior they confront (and largely tolerate unchallenged) time and again, is utterly depressing. It used to be widely accepted that it was proper to grant everyone common courtesy, but respect had to be earned. Now respect is an entitlement. Those who do not duly grant it are punished with violent righteous indignation. Indeed, this is pathological in the truest sense.

Wisely, James and Kotlowitz focus almost exclusively on the personal dramas, eschewing questions of root causes and the like. Slutkin briefly addresses such issues, arguing violence is the problem in and of itself, suggesting employers will return into blighted neighborhoods once they are safe again. Indeed, he makes a valid point.

Clearly, the Interrupters earn everyone’s respect for their courage and dedication. However, at nearly two and a half hours, the film becomes somewhat repetitive, without ever building to a natural climax. Granted, life is messy that way, but by the same token, after witnessing several interruptions and subsequent follow-up sessions, we totally get the program. Still, to his credit, James is an expansive filmmaker who commits to his subjects fully and absolutely. A well-intentioned, worthy film that will give audiences a fresh appreciation for life in New York (at least for now), The Interrupters opens today (7/29) at the IFC Center.