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The Interrupters

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If you haven’t yet heard of The Interrupters, you haven’t been paying close enough attention to 2011’s slate of great movies. Steve James’ latest documentary tackles the intractable problem of gang violence in Chicago with a very hands-off approach that helps him achieve moments of gut-wrenching honesty. The film’s thesis will dismay you, though you’ll be simultaneously uplifted by the courage and strength of our three heroes. It’s far from easy to watch, but right from the outset, you’ll find yourself glued to the screen—not exactly an easy feat for a non-fiction film.

The film follows Chicago’s violence interrupters—a group made up primarily of former gang members who are dedicated to stopping the gang-related killings that are plaguing their city. Three of these individuals—Ameena Matthews, Eddie Bocanegra, and Cobe Williams—share their stories of overcoming personal challenges and finding forgiveness for their past mistakes. It’s this that motivates them to do whatever they can to salvage the lives of other young people in whom they see a little too much of their former selves.

One of the most interesting things about The Interrupters is the different styles employed by its three main characters. Matthews leads through charisma and sheer willpower. She’s a frighteningly good speaker, perhaps because she’s let’s her heart do the talking, and it’s impossible to not watch her and really listen to what she has to say.

Williams, meanwhile, has a more low-key approach. He befriends people, let’s them know he’s there for him, and really follows-up. One of the film’s best stories involves a man named Flamo. Flamo’s family had just been arrested because a rival set them up. His initial response was to go down to the man’s house, guns blazing. But Williams takes him for a ride and rationalizes the situation with him. Yes, it sucks, but what’s killing someone going to do. One of the film’s final moments shows Flamo going to work, a calmer and much happier man. It’s a startling image, and one that wouldn’t likely be possible without Williams’ intervention.

Then, there’s Eddie Bocanegra, who has perhaps the hardest time coping with his past. Though his two colleagues have done their fair share of time, Eddie’s time was for murder, something he struggles a great deal with. He spends most days visiting a school, talking with the kids, and showing them other ways in which they can express their anger, sadness, and fear. Other days, however, he spends at the grave of the man whose life he took. It’s something you’re unaccustomed to—feeling deep sympathy for a convicted murderer—but this is just another in the long line of accomplishments by James and his crew.

There’s no way you can deny what Steve James has accomplished here. This is one of the finest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and easily one of the best films of 2011. It shows a slice of society that the majority of us pretends doesn’t even exist, and it does so in such a way that will both dismay and uplift you.

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