By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
So, documentary filmmaker Steve James must be a serial lawn-shitter with a special preference for the grass of Hollywood bigwigs. That, or he’s just really popular with their daughters. Because I don’t know what else could explain the apparent disdain he gets from the Academy come Oscar time. His 1994 inner-city basketball documentary Hoop Dreams is widely recognized as one of the finest, if not the finest, documentaries of all time, but it couldn’t get an Oscar nomination. Last year’s The Interrupters made its mark as potentially the best of its genre in 2011, and didn’t even make the shortlist for consideration…
It’s probably the daughters. Stone cold silver fox.
Regardless of what Oscar thinks (which, honestly, is always the right mindset) The Interrupters is an amazing piece of work. It follows CeaseFire, an incredibly brave group of citizens in inner-city Chicago who devote their lives to inserting themselves into potentially violent situations and defusing them. Made up of local residents and former criminals and gang members, they have the ability and know-how to reach these people that other efforts simply can’t match. And they’re stunningly successful- reducing murder rates an unprecedented 40-45% in some neighborhoods. This film tells their story.
And it’s a hell of a story. The Interrupters lets the principals relate it themselves, intercut with footage of them at work defusing violent situations and attempting to address the problem of violence at large. The latter makes the cameraman a pretty ballsy bastard, but that pales in comparison to people like Ameena Matthews and Eddie Bocanegra, who do this every day. However, it’s not until they tell their personal stories that it becomes clear just how brave these individuals are.
CeaseFire views violence as an infection, passed on by both heritage and contact, a stance that is buttressed by the pasts of its members. Matthews was the daughter of a noted Chicago gangster, Jeff Fort, and rose quickly in the organization as a drug dealer and, incredibly, feared enforcer. Bocanegra was the son of Mexican immigrants who rejected the all-work, no-traction lifestyle of his parents and found a quicker way to money and respect through a talent for boosting cars. Both could have continued in this lifestyle until it finally claimed them, but violent confrontations and incarceration stopped them in their tracks and put them on different paths.
On the film-making side, not only does James capture some harrowing footage, he does a great job immersing us in a world that a great many people don’t know anything more about than what they see on TV or hear in lyrics spun by a load of prep-school posers and very few actual inhabitants of the street. This should be required viewing for anyone who’s ever bitched about the ghetto or its inhabitants without ever having taken the time to see it or actually talk to one.
No, playing golf with Bernie Madoff at Country Club Pen doesn’t make you hard
What makes The Interrupters great is that it is more than just a collection of inspirational stories or a profile of an organization. While it’s not an all-encompassing view of the problems of the ghetto, it does an amazing job of capturing the complexities of the situation and the incredibly difficulty of creating change. In particular, Matthews’ efforts to help Caprysha, a young woman with a tragic past, show how hard it is to reach someone whose survival up until this point has depended on building walls around all of the horrible things that have happened to her, and loading emotional tripwires with violent consequences to protect them. How do you convince someone like that to tear down those walls, convince them that a future that they’d given up on long ago is possible, convince them to hope? Like real life, this film doesn’t offer any easy answers, besides the only conscionable one- don’t stop trying.
The Interrupters tells the story of a group of courageous, heartbreaking people risking everything to make a change. If that’s not worth at least a toast, nothing is.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time a murder is mentioned
Take a Drink: for every confrontation broken up or situation defused
Take a Drink: every time an Interrupter acts just a mite bit proud of a criminal past
Take a Drink: every time you hear a piece of slang you don’t recognize (white people, be honest)
Do a Shot: every time Caprysha attempts to burn a bridge