The Interrupters. Directed by Steve James. Chicago: Kartemquin Films, 2011. 125 minutes.
In The Interrupters director Steve James ventures into the war zone of Chicago’s inner city to explore the harsh realities confronting urban neighborhoods that are plagued with menacingly high rates of gun violence. In cinema verite style, James completely removes himself from the picture and allows his subjects’ grit and pathos to narrate the story. The documentary was inspired by Alex Kotlowitz’s New York Times Magazine article “Blocking the Transmission of Violence.”1 In the narrative, Violence Interrupters, a group of reformed ex-gang members from the CeaseFire organization, aim to quell grievances before they erupt into tragic episodes and to resolve violence by reaching out to those who are most affected.
A prominent theme that arises in the film is the impact of rampant gun violence on men, women, and families in the community. The film provides a useful tool to discuss ways in which gendered expectations surrounding behaviors, such as men being more aggressive than women, tend to blur among residents of inner city communities. Growing up, both young men and women learn to defend themselves through fighting—an action that, the film suggests, is sometimes necessary for survival and other times is provoked by senseless or unknown catalysts. The brutality is the root of family destruction, sending men and boys to prisons or premature graves. Mothers are left without children and husbands, and sisters without brothers. The documentary pays tribute to those caregivers who step in when children have absent parents. Women and men acting as mother and father figures are an invaluable presence in such communities. Once such figure is Violence Interrupter Ameena Matthews, who watches over Caprysha Anderson, a teenager with a troubled past but intentions for a fruitful future. Ameena’s voice booms powerfully through her anti-violence activism. At a funeral, she tells a crowd of young adults: “We got a responsibility to bring up our community to be vibrant. Whatever it is that’s going on, cease the fire, call a truce.” One of few female Violence Interrupters, Ameena encourages others to follow her lead to be agents of social change. She also crosses boundaries into traditionally male-dominated territories and successfully navigates difficult interpersonal exchanges that even the most capable male Interrupters find challenging.
Students will benefit from the use of texts and films that further explore the lives of young men and women in the inner city. John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) chronicles the impact of gun violence on young men and women in a Los Angeles ghetto. Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (1993) follows a group of three women growing up in a tamer Brooklyn, NY. In addition, Nikki Jones’s article about young women’s experiences with violence in the inner city is a fitting companion piece to the film.2 Jones lists a number of classroom exercises on her website betweengoodandghetto.com/blog.
1 Alex Kotlowitz, "Blocking the Transmission of Violence," New York Times Magazine (May 4, 2008). http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/04/magazine/04health-t.html
2 Nikki Jones, "It's Not Where You Live, It's How You Live: How Young Women Negotiate Conflict and Violence in the Inner City," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 595 (2004): 49-62.