The Interrupters (Cinema Guild, NR)

Generally this means getting to people who were recently victims of gang violence and are expected to retaliate; other times it has them literally throwing themselves in between two people they find fighting on the street.

 

 

 

“They’re not trying to dismantle gangs; they’re trying to save a life,” explains a character early on in The Interrupters, the new documentary by Steve James. The Interrupters in question are members of a volunteer organization called CeaseFire, which is made up of former gang members who are now trying to stop gang violence. CeaseFire takes the position that violence is a disease and spreads like a disease, and they do their best to stop its spread at the source. Generally this means getting to people who were recently victims of some sort of gang violence and are expected to retaliate; other times it has them literally throwing themselves in between two people they find fighting on the street. This happens early in the film, and the cameraman—and you as the viewer—are thrown in there right alongside them. (It’s weird to think about the reality of a cameraman cramming cameras in these people’s faces in moments like these.) CeaseFire as a rule doesn’t work for or against the police, and given that its members are all ex-gang they have quite a bit of credibility with the current gang members, something police officers can never really hope for.

Take one of the film’s central figures, Ameena Matthews. Ameena is the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of Chicago’s best-known gang leaders. She was born into the gang life and lived it willingly for some time, but now uses her knowledge, experience, bravery, and strength to try to divert people from the path she took early in her life. There’s also Eddie Bocanegra, who spent 14 years in prison for a murder he committed when he was 17. It’s hard not to take people like this seriously; it’s one thing to get good advice from someone who has never had your problems in the first place, but quite another to get it from someone who wishes they’d taken that same advice before it was too late.

The film is strong and moving, as one would expect it to be (if you need any more convincing, might I remind you that James is the director of Hoop Dreams?). Where it gets deeper still is ways you’re able to apply what you’ve seen and learned in the film to your own life. If nothing else, it makes you think about Tookie Williams, whose name never comes up it the film (perhaps because The Interrupters was made in Chicago?). Tookie was of course the co-founder of the L.A.-based gang the Crips, one of the most notorious gangs of recent decades. In prison he reformed and went on to become an anti-gang activist and author of, among other things, children’s books. What could Tookie have done as a member of CeaseFire? People like Ameena are a complete force—loving and smart but tough as hell—but imagine being a gang member being interrupted by the once-leader of the Crips? Alas, Tookie was executed by lethal injection in 2005, so we’ll never know. One of CeaseFire’s main goals is to stop retaliatory violence—like the old Gandhi quote about how an “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And what is the death penalty if not retaliatory violence? Too bad CeaseFire couldn’t have sent Ameena out to stop then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; he wouldn’t have stood a chance against her. | Pete Timmermann

 

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