The Interrupters

This documentary on Chicago gang violence is the most necessary film of the year.

Scene from The Interrupters

The Interrupters (The Cinema Guild), a documentary about an initiative to stop urban violence in Chicago, may be the most necessary film you’ll see this year. But if you go to the movies in search of emotion rather than edification, don’t let that word necessary deter you, because this is also one of the most engaging films you’ll see this year, full of vibrant, complex real-life characters whose troubles and joys will stay with you long after the movie’s done. The “violence interrupters” are a group of ex-convicts and former gang members who’ve joined CeaseFire, an organization with a unique approach to quelling youth violence. Rather than lecturing in schools or running drop-in centers, they get out on the street, find kids in situations of potential danger (on the South Side of Chicago, they’re in no short supply), and do what it takes to resolve conflict on the spot, whether that involves wresting a chunk of concrete out of the hands of an angry teenager or taking a disaffected 19-year-old dropout to get her first-ever manicure.

Filmed over the course of a year—we watch the seasons progress in four separate chapters—The Interrupters does a magnificent job of establishing what’s at stake for the workers at CeaseFire: Consumed with regret over the sins of their youth (which, in the case of at least one, included murder), they will stop at nothing to keep kids in their community from making the same mistakes.

As in his classic 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, director Steve James (collaborating with Chicago journalist Alex Kotlowitz), establishes an immediate and powerful sense of intimacy with his subjects. The interrupters aren’t holier-than-thou do-gooders, just struggling, suffering, astonishingly brave people. Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a legendary Chicago gang leader who’s now in jail for life, spent her youth living the high life as a drug-running party girl; she’s now a married mother, a convert to Islam, and one of CeaseFire’s star interrupters. In the course of her work with neighborhood kids, she develops an intense relationship with the aptly named Caprysha, a troubled girl who swings rapidly from puppylike devotion to sullen withdrawal.

Cobe Williams, a former gangbanger who’s now a suburban family man (his wife describes him dryly as “a very, very nerdy person”), is shown intervening in several different cases, most notably that of Flamo, a volatile loner whose resistance to being helped at times places Cobe in physical danger. And Eddie Bocanegra, a Latino ex-con with a monklike devotion to his work, teaches a painting class to young children who live in fear of random violence, then counsels a depressed girl who watched her older brother die in her arms.

Some scenes are difficult to watch; I wasn’t the only one on my row occasionally shielding my eyes as if from a horror film. A group of women runs down a city block seeking revenge for some slight done to their brother, one of them wielding a kitchen knife, as children age 4 or 5 tag along after. At a teenager’s funeral, his friends pose for pictures next to the open casket, taking turns playing the role of the corpse. On a wall mural with the names of local kids who’ve lost their lives to violence, a graffiti scrawl reads “I am next.”

Just when you’re about to despair, though, The Interrupters offers glimpses of the hope that must be what keeps the interrupters plugging away at their exhausting work. Li’l Mikey, a young man who held up a barbershop two years ago, agrees to return to the shop with Cobe to apologize to everyone who was there that day. His reconciliation with a woman whose children are still traumatized by the memory is harrowing and uplifting at once. The movie’s epilogue, in which we follow up with each case after the year is over, contains a few joyful surprises—not happy endings, perhaps, but at least the prevention of endings that could have been so much worse.