Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Interrupters

THE INTERRUPTERS                        A                    
USA  (125 mi)  2011  d:  Steve James              Trailer              Official site

We got over 500 years of prison time at this table.  That’s a lot of fuckin’ wisdom.       
— Zale Hoddenbach, former gang member, now a CeaseFire interrupter

First of all, gang violence is not something most people understand or have any insight into, considered a cultural phenomenon unique to neighborhoods infested with gangs, and largely ignored, out of sight, out of mind, by people living in safer neighborhoods.  It’s like prison reform, as you never stop to consider the ramifications of undermanned and overcrowded prisons until the day you find yourself incarcerated.  But in large urban areas across the country, this is the story that usually leads off the evening news, another senseless death, a child accidentally shot down in a gang shooting crossfire, where it’s rarely the intended victim that’s harmed.  The stories are relentless, with few, if any solutions offered, because the perpetrators are outside the reach of the police, family, or church influence, and therefore usually end up dead or in prison at an early age, supposedly immune to the powers of persuasion, or so we thought. 

In the aftermath of this 2008 New York Times piece, a thoroughly engaging essay by Alex Kotlowitz that scientifically examines the root causes of Chicago gang violence, offering treatment along the lines of neutralizing a medical epidemic, actually offering a bit of insight into the seemingly impenetrable gang culture for a change, documentary filmmaker Steve James, the heralded director of HOOP DREAMS (1994), enlisted the assistance of Kotlowitz in following on camera some of the individuals mentioned in his article who were providing gang intervention, known as “violence interrupters,” as they hope to stop the neverending cycle of revenge and prevent future shootings before they happen.  With the experience of having been in gangs and prison and survived, some for committing murder when they were teenagers, these interrupters already understand the mindset of the upcoming gang youth who shoot before they think, never for a second thinking about their own lives they are throwing away, instead it’s all about getting immediate retribution in a moment of anger, thinking that in some way killing makes things right, at least in their eyes—Death before dishonor.  This kind of thinking is what fills the prisons.

This is one of the most heartbreaking and excruciatingly painful subjects of any film you'll ever see, as the camera searches out families of recently shot teenagers, including their younger brothers and sisters or their grieving parents, focusing on their immediate reaction, oftentimes on their front steps, in their living rooms, or at the funeral and burial services.  Unlike the news media that exploit these situations, the violence interrupters routinely put their own lives on the line, trying to diffuse anger by placing themselves in harm’s way, where they have unique insight into just what these kids are feeling and how they intend to resolve the conflict.  But violence isn’t inherited at birth, it’s a learned behavior that reflects the world around them, where kids are just following the examples of people they know.  The interrupters have an obligation to re-educate them on the spot, using as examples those around them who are dead or imprisoned, where they could become just another statistic or they could have a second chance at life.  The interrupters are placed in the precarious position where they are not cops and do not inform on illegal activity, and while they don’t condone gang activity, they’re not in a position to change or even alter that culture, only the hair-trigger response of certain individuals to shoot whoever shot one of them.  

The film documents a year in the life of an inner city organization called CeaseFire, founded by an infectious disease physician Gary Slutkin who spent a decade in Africa with the World Health Organization attempting to halt the spread of infectious diseases, returning home to Chicago where he viewed the spread of youth violence as similar to an infectious outbreak.  Tio Hardiman, a neighborhood social activist with a prior history of drug and alcohol abuse, invented the interrupters program, attempting to stop the violent outbreaks using individuals who had street credibility not just with gangs, but in the eyes of youth who have few positive role models.  Especially because they are so familiar with the effects of violence in their own lives, having somehow survived, now returning back to the streets offering an alternative, this is an extremely volatile and highly personalized approach to mediation, getting in the faces of gangbangers and angry kids who just lost a brother or an innocent nephew, attempting to redirect their hostility, which usually means staying with them, continuing a lengthy dialogue much like negotiating with a hostage taker or a downbeat individual considering suicide, until the inflammatory anger passes, and then following up afterwards, continuing to offer crisis intervention services.   

While the city’s interrupters meet weekly with Hardiman to discuss their works in progress, James chooses three to follow, all extremely charismatic individuals with tortured pasts whose impressive turnabout makes them uniquely qualified.  Ameena Matthews gives what is perhaps the most wrenching performance of the year, whose no nonsense authenticity, directness under pressure, and personal charm gives her an overwhelming onscreen presence.  The daughter of Jeff Fort, iconic founder of the Black P. Stone Nation and imprisoned-for-life leader of the notorious El Rukn street gang, she was a drug using party girl (seen in vintage El Rukn home video) and former gang lieutenant now converted to the Muslim faith.  When Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honor student at Fenger High School was beaten to death walking home from school, all caught on YouTube by a camera phone (Beating Death Of Derrion Albert, 16, Caught On Video), her family asked for Ameena to speak at the funeral service, which is an awe inspiring and unforgettable moment, attempting to publicly hold those responsible accountable for their actions.  But her easy, down-to-earth manner and accessibility in the lives of wayward teens is exemplary, if not heroic.   

Ricardo “Cobe” Williams is a big man with a similar purpose, a kid who went haywire when his father was beaten to death by a baseball bat, spending his youth in and out of prison until he also found religion, where he seems determined to offer a path of redemption for others that he never experienced himself.  Another easy going guy, whose wife says is really “nerdy,” where according to Hardiman, among his many talents is knowing when to walk away in dicey situations.  This is a guy so dedicated that he continued going to work even after the funds dried up and he was laid off for a period, because like a CIA undercover operative in the field, once you make a promise to be there in saving people’s lives, people in high risk situations where their lives may be in danger, you have a commitment to be there.  One of the most riveting scenes in the film is Cobe bringing a young 19-year old armed offender known as Li'l Mikey, a youth who spent nearly 3 years in prison, back to the scene of the crime where he held up a barber shop.  This kind of theater you can’t invent, as it’s among the most dramatically powerful and intensely personal moments of the film.  Mikey is so committed to finding that redemptive path that Hardiman actually considers him as their first teen interrupter.         

Eddie Bocanegra shot a killed another kid when he was 17.  Now, like the other two, he’s on a spiritual mission to make up for it, talking to disaffected youth, offering an art class for those kids who have been affected by violence, where one 11-year old girl describes the experience of her brother getting shot in the head and dying in her arms.  Because of the tender age of many of these kids, he’s more like a big brother offering them positive alternatives or a shoulder to cry on, where their heartfelt comments are remarkably unfiltered.  One of the more poignant moments is joining the family at the cemetery site, where they gather every single day, offering a silent communion for their loss.  While Eddie is able to console the young girl, the figure of her father sitting there in silence every day is a haunting and tragic sight.      

For 25 years murder has been the leading cause of death among black men between the ages of 15 and 34, while more than 11% of black males age 25 to 34 are incarcerated, while black women are incarcerated at nearly 4 times the rate of white women and more than twice the rate of Hispanic women.  Nothing seems to put a dent in these numbers despite neighborhood marches, media speeches, church activism, a Mayor’s attempt to ban handguns (which was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court), and the police continually asking for crime witnesses to step forward.  While it’s impossible to measure the results, CeaseFire claims they show a 40 – 60% reduction in shootings in six targeted neighborhoods, which would include West Garfield Park, Englewood, Maywood, Logan Square, Roseland, and Rogers Park, with as much as a 67% reduction in others.  Despite these claims, the interventionist program has continued to face budget cuts, where 50 or 60 interrupters were reduced to less than 20, where the elected politicians seem as far removed from this problem as those living in the isolation of the rural plain states.  As profoundly relevant as any documentary seen in the past 5 years, there’s a soulful, organ drenched rendition of “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Solomon Burke that plays over the end credits, an ominous reminder of just how hard it is to remain committed to a lifelong project fraught with this degree of intense tragedy and pain. 

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