Acclaimed director Steve James is most known for his critically-adored documentary Hoop Dreams (1994) which followed two high school basketball players for five years as they acclimated to the pressure placed on talented young athletes. The running time for that film was 171 minutes but still managed to pull in millions of dollars at the box office, receive glowing reviews from critics, and earn a Criterion DVD release. Seventeen years later, James returns with another lengthy documentary focusing on the pressures surrounding inner-city inhabitants. This time, the filmmaker followed a group of “violence interrupters” from Chicago working to defuse altercations before they turn violent.
Producer and award-winning author, Alex Kotlowitz, inspired the film in 2008 when his article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence” was printed in New York Times Magazine. Kotlowitz co-produced the film and worked with James to tell the stories of these incredible interrupters. The film’s subjects work for an organization called CeaseFire which modeled itself after an organization dedicated to fight the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases in Africa by having former sex workers educate the people around them. In Chicago, the ones doing the educating are former members of the city’s toughest gangs. Most of them have served time, some for murder and other violent crimes, and they use their knowledge of inner-city violence and their street credentials to intervene and defuse situations before they escalate.
In one stunning scene, Interrupter Ameena Matthews, a petite woman wearing a Muslim hijab, jumps in between a woman swinging a butcher’s knife at a man who fought her brother earlier. Ameena dodges flying chunks of concrete while attempting to calm everyone involved. It’s a thrilling display of bravery but it’s important to recognize that Interrupters never showcases its violence as anything but negative. James displays scenes of violence throughout the film but it’s the inclusion of the aftermath that really sets Interrupters apart. A young man shows off his half-filled colostomy bag. Another boy cries about the regularity of violence in his neighborhoods while being taken to the hospital. A father holds a press conference after his son is murdered on his street. The gravity of these situations is shown frequently and explicitly.
The Interrupters deserves the same levels of praise that Hoop Dreams received. It’s a well-crafted film with captivating subjects and brutal honestly. It’s rare that even after 162 minutes, a film leaves the viewer wanting even more. But that’s definitely the case with this film. Let’s hope Criterion is paying attention.