The Interrupters: Steve James’ Immersive New Documentary

Inspired by a 2008 New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, Steve James’ commanding documentary about “violence interrupters” in Chicago who intervene in conflicts before they escalate into gunshots, unfolds as deeply reported journalism. Much like Hoop Dreams (1994), James’s in-depth examination of the athletic aspirations of two African-American high-school students, The Interrupters reminds us of the powers and pleasures of well-crafted, immersive nonfiction filmmaking—a genre vitiated within the past five years by a glut of cruddy-looking, poorly researched and argued titles. Spanning the summer of 2009 to the spring of 2010, James’ film follows the work of CeaseFire, an organization founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who equates violence with infectious disease, insisting that its spread can be combated as one would contain an outbreak of cholera or TB: by going after the most infected areas and stopping the sickness at its source. The heart of The Interrupters is the steadfast efforts of three CeaseFire workers: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, who all have criminal records, like most of the organization’s outreach employees; their histories give them not just street cred but an understanding of how to defuse volatile disputes. Unlike a majority of recent high-profile documentaries, The Interrupters doesn’t rely on cute graphics or charts to convey its facts. James trusts that his audience is patient and intelligent enough to piece together Chicago’s history of violence simply by watching—and listening to—what’s onscreen.