Old gangstas offer wise counsel in ‘The Interrupters’
There’s an amazing scene in “The Interrupters’’ just past the halfway point that captures exactly how life is lived on the knife’s edge that separates what’s funny from what’s awful. The film, a documentary by Steve James, who also made “Hoop Dreams,’’ embeds itself with an anti-violence network in Chicago called CeaseFire. In part, CeaseFire comprises a bunch of former gang members, mostly leaders it would seem and mostly leaders who’ve spent time in prison. Whenever a member gets word from one of their neighborhood contacts that something’s about to jump off or has already jumped, that member arrives on the scene and tries to defuse the situation or counsel against reprisals.
One day Cobe Williams shows up at the front door of a ropy, keyed-up piece of work named Flamo. When Williams and two other CeaseFire members arrive, Flamo is ready to retaliate against the guys who embroiled him once again with the police. Williams calmly tries reason to soothe him: Think about your daughters, think about your mother, consider the possibility of another trip to prison. Flamo says he’s spent 15 of his 32 years behind bars, so what does he care?
In stress and frustration, he chucks his phone into the snow only to realize near the end of the scene that he needs it. We have no idea who this man is, we don’t even know his full name, but tossing the very phone he needs to do anything, including conduct revenge, seems like classic Flamo. “The Wire’’ certainly could have invented him, but James also understands how to do justice to this man’s lunatic petulance and emotional non sequiturs: by doing very little to it. Flamo arrives as a new character in James’s grand social drama the way such characters do in works of fiction. And he serves the similar purpose of clarification. Tossing away that phone becomes a symbol of the pernicious self-destruction CeaseFire is up against. Flamo isn’t just chucking a phone. He’s throwing away a lifeline.
The immediacy and caprice of violence in “The Interrupters’’ are just as strong as in nearly every documentary I’ve seen about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But “The Interrupters’’ is set on the South Side where, we’re told, as many black men, women, and children have died as American troops in both those wars. James and his co-producer, the journalist Alex Kotlowitz, spare us the deluges of dismaying statistics. We know what the stakes are. What the movie does simply in observing is chronicle the problem’s reach, and the seemingly Sisyphean task of overtaking it.
We learn the task force was started by Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who believes the problem of urban violence should be solved scientifically. He compares the scourge of shootings and murders among poor blacks and Hispanics to a pandemic. The movie fails to make clear how, practically, violence is like the plague. You also wonder whether some of these young men and women - and their parents and grandparents - might benefit from therapy, that this is as much a matter of psychological orientation as it is one of socioeconomic condition. Still, you get Slutkin’s point. If CeaseFire can’t cure the disease, it can at least attempt to prevent its spread.
James has essentially chosen a fly-on-the-wall approach that spares him the intimidating challenge of applying hard journalism to the problem of violence and the thornier issues of how to solve it. He watches group meetings, tags along on visits to the homes of gang members’ worried mothers, catches flare-ups, explores the backgrounds of CeaseFire members. He trusts all these incidents and people to speak for themselves. The smaller moments are telling, like when two warring brothers can look neither each other nor their mother in the eye. It’s possible that the presence of a camera heightens how some of these people react, but the film doesn’t instigate any of what we see. If anything, it magnifies the inherent vitality of a woman like Ameena Matthews.
Matthews is the daughter of a storied Chicago gang leader. She spent years as a drug enforcer. But she became a mother and a Muslim, and now, with apologies to Oprah Winfrey, Matthews appears to be the most important woman in Chicago. She’s small. She’s always in a hijab. She radiates great power. You want to please her. She’s there to comfort the mother of a young man killed in a high-school melee that winds up a viral video. She delivers an aria at the funeral of a different slain young man. She walks around the neighborhood handing out fliers. She tries to contain street fights. Once, she locks her keys in her car. There’s a new Sarah Jessica Parker movie out today called “I Don’t Know How She Does It.’’ Matthews makes Parker look like Fred Sanford.
“The Interrupters’’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January as a 144-minute odyssey. It was strong. But that movie drained you. It meandered. James must have known. He spent the next six months trimming. It’s now just over two hours and it’s better. In the original cut, Matthews was its heart amid the other wrenching business. Now she’s its star. This streamlined version allows parts of the problem to represent the whole, and the condensation brings into even starker relief Chicago’s socioeconomic reality.
In that sense, “The Interrupters’’ is one of the great movies of the Obama era, the best and most painful so far. Too few children believe they’re capable of emulating all that success. Without really having to say so, the movie presents that seemingly irreconcilable incongruity - between the hope of his presidency and the despair of people still living near where he worked. The problems of crime and gangs and black-on-black violence, poverty and dismal self-esteem predate his presidency, and they’ll persist when it’s over.
James is determined to look on the bright side in a way that never feels like a compromise. The movie is aware of CeaseFire’s thorny moral and social predicament (they don’t appear to collaborate with the police, for instance). But the film demonstrates just how these old gangstas can break through to the younger ones. If the group can make one kid see the error of his ways, it has succeeded. But for now, the movie says, there is no cure for this disease. This is another war with no end in sight.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review misstated the role of Alex Kotlowitz. It is a film by Steve James and Kotlowitz. Kotlowitz produced it. Steve James directed.