Dir. Steve James
(2011, Not Rated, 125 min)

It has long been a cliché that violence is a disease. The Interrupters, by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), uses that as a framework through which to examine the lives of young, mostly black boys and girls in the crime-ridden South Side of Chicago, and it proves to be more apt than just a metaphor or platitude. These children have a lower life expectancy. They expect to die as the result of street violence in a way someone might expect to die of cancer if he has a similar family history. It is passed down from generation to generation, but this is nurture, not nature. You’re trained from the day you’re born, if not by parents then by peers or by tragic experience, to expect violence and to employ it, sometimes preemptively, in your own defense. Pardon me an unlikely quote; in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Eowyn said: “… those who do not live by the sword can still die upon them.” So in a world where an honor student may fall as easily as a gangbanger, it’s understandable to want to make someone else a victim rather than to become one yourself.

This is not my world. I grew up in the Bronx but with a Canadian disposition. I’ve never been in a fight. My father told me that if I ever got hit to hit back, but my nature is to avoid any and all hitting. I’m a pacifist, not out of any moral or political conviction but purely for self-preservation. A person like me could tell the kids in Chicago’s inner city that violence isn’t the answer, but what do I know? I could tell them I understand how hard it is, but no I don’t. But CeaseFire, the organization profiled in this film, is made up of men and women who have grown up with the same influences, and they have made a decision to combat the violence. In a sense, they have cured themselves of the disease, and now they work to administer the cure to their neighbors; because they are products of the same streets, they have credibility in the community.

At one point during the film, it is shown that Chicago considered deploying the National Guard to the South Side. What a terrible idea that would have been, especially after watching the positive work done by CeaseFire. Many New Orleans residents were rightly offended to be treated as refugees in their own country following Hurricane Katrina; how much worse it would have been to treat poor black Americans like enemy combatants.

Approaching the violence problem with far greater understanding and empathy are CeaseFire’s Violence Interrupters, including Ameena Matthews, a charismatic firebrand and former drug dealer who knows of what she speaks; her father was a legendary gang leader. Another, Cobe Williams, mediates a dispute between brothers from rival gangs so contentious that their mother moved out; this seems less like abandoning her sons than discovering her limits as a parent, which is a sad indication of how life must be for other families as well. A third, Eddie Bocanegra, served time for murder; though he does positive work now, he doesn’t think anything can make up for his taking of a life, and maybe he’s right. James sympathizes with the Interrupters and the young men and women they counsel; from the outside they might look like stubborn thugs perpetuating a cycle of violence, but in this intimate perspective, they’re afraid, wary, and angry about the lives they’ve led for lack of a better choice. As they learn, there is a better choice, but it’s not an easy one to make.

 

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