Frontline: The Interrupters

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Ratings (out of five): ****

With a title that makes it sound like an action film, Steve James' new documentary The Interrupters actually is an action film in a way -- it's about the brave actions of a few reformed souls who try to do some good in a world of violence. James, who co-directed the masterful epic Hoop Dreams, one of the most important documentaries of the past thirty years, returns to Chicago for this story of those who call themselves "interrupters," people who try to mediate gang-related disputes before they escalate into violence.

The film, based on a book by Alex Kotlowitz, has a remarkably fluid, fly on the wall style of which Frederick Wiseman would approve. Though snubbed by this year's Oscars, it did at least win the Indie Spirit Award for Best Documentary.

Many of these real-life characters, both gang members and former gang members, plus their connected friends and family, are too good to be true. Front and center is the unforgettable Ameena Matthews, whose father is Jeff Fort, one of Chicago's most notorious gang leaders, and who was herself a drug ring enforcer. But having children and finding solace in Islam solidified Ameena's life. She is blunt, strong, funny, and admirably determined, the kind of character you cannot make up.

  interrupters-ameena-matthews

Another interrupter is Cobe Williams, who also had a life of crime before he turned his life around. Now he's on the streets, bravely intervening, as when, in a memorable sequence, he talks a beyond agitated gang member out of seeking revenge. And that guy himself becomes another indelible, likably human, character as the film progresses. In yet another story, Williams takes a young gang member, now out of prison and wanting to fix his life, to the scene of his crime, where he apologizes to a skeptical store owner. It's an utterly moving scene.

  interrupters-cobe-williams

And James' film is full of such people, gangsters and former gangsters, beleaguered neighbors and frustrated teens teetering on the brink, family members trying not to follow the same dangerous path as their brethren, and so on, all empathetically portrayed and achingly real. Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is the troubled 19 year old girl named Caprysha with whom Ameena develops a protective bond, even as this mood-swinging, overweight girl often pushes her away. It's an intense relationship and you'll find yourself worrying about them both over the course of the film.

I will not spoil other events and turns as seen in The Interrupters. I only urge you to see it. Even with a fairly long 2+ hour running time, it's not only engaging but, despite the depressing setting and tragic events that led to a lot of this, it is ultimately inspiring beyond words.

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