Wednesday, February 22, 2012

DVD Review - The Interrupters

Ameena Matthews in "The Interrupters"
There have been so many films and even TV shows that have dealt with inner city drug and violence problems, particularly with regard to African-Americans who are literally losing their lives. Often times, the perspective is that of police trying to stop the criminal elements. In the case of John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991) or the Hughes Brothers' Menace II Society (1993), it was from the perspective of individuals trying to escape their environment. Oscar nominee Steve James (Hoop Dreams) has this documentary take the perspective of people in the environment not trying to escape but rather reform it and make it better.

Specifically, they want to stop the violence and they in question is a group in Chicago called CeaseFire. It's a group whose members are called "violence interrupters." Those members consist of former gang members and convicts who served their jail time and are now out and older and who don't want to see young people go through what they went through and end up either in prison or dead. Some of these members are former drug dealers and drug users. Some of these members are people who have committed violence themselves, including murder, but all of them want to make a change for the better.

There is a heartbreaking sequence in this movie when we see the almost infinite number of memorials for young people who have been killed on the streets due to gang-related violence. There is an even more heartbreaking scene when the members of CeaseFire attend a child's funeral and you get the sense that something must be done. The violence needs to be stopped, but the police can't do what CeaseFire can. What CeasFire does is bring a level of understanding and rapport that others don't.

The CeaseFire members get to know the people in the neighborhood, young people and often time the gang members. They keep their ears open for potential conflicts. If a conflict arises, they step in as diplomats or peace negotiators. Because the CeaseFire members are former gang members themselves and because they've already developed a lot of relationships prior, they're able to get both sides of the conflict to trust them more than outsiders could.

Yet, a lot of the efforts of CeaseFire is to prevent escalations into conflict in the first place. Dr. Gary Slutkin, the founder of CeaseFire and an epidemiologist talks about how he uses scientific methods to accomplish this. He specifically sees violence as a disease and using methods an epidemiologist would to tackle a disease or virus. Beyond that, what this movie shows us are the CeaseFire members doing their jobs. James follows about a half-dozen of them over the course of a year as we stand aside and watch them in action.

We get to know a good handful of the members but there are two standouts among the group. The first is Ameena Matthews. She was the daughter of a gang leader, a man named Jeff Fort who was comparable to the main character in Denzel Washington's American Gangster (2007). Not only was she his daughter but she also worked in his gang. How she went from a life of crime to CeaseFire is one that she shares in pieces and as it unfurls over the course of the year, we are hit so strongly by her struggle and her empathy.

Ameena is truly a compelling character and a force with which to be reckoned. Yes, she's a diplomat but often times she really has to get into people's faces. She's never mean. She's sweet and nurturing and caring to the young people with whom she meets. She's like a mother to them, but often that means having to be stern.

The second CeaseFire member who really stands out is Cobe Williams. Cobe served 12 years for drug trafficking and attempted murder. He came from a broken home and like Ameena had his grandmother raise him. Cobe works less with young people as he does older people. He helps to reunite families and keep men from going down the path of retaliation and revenge because they see no other way of solving their problems. He's like a beacon or a lighthouse to help guide people to safe shores. He has a lovely personality. He's warm and inviting.

The other CeaseFire members are also very interesting and seeing the passion and dedication that each has to what they're doing is admirable and inspiring. Cinema Guild gave this doc a theatrical run but this was more or less another PBS production for its series Frontline.

What's most important is that James shows the effect that CeaseFire has on the individual lives they touch, specifically in this film, but if I would criticize it for anything, it would be for not indicating what effect the group had at large, statistics to show if there were any change in the crime rate or death rate or anything. Otherwise, this was a great movie.

Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated Theatrically But Recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.

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