Joshua Reviews Steve James’ The Interrupters [SXSW 2011 Review]

While names like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore may in fact garner the most publicity and attention, the true king of the modern day documentary is a name far less talked about, and far more talented.

Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams, is back with his latest masterpiece, the epic in length but minimal in scope documentary, The Interrupters.   And while it may ultimately lack the same narrative depth as his Criterion Collection staple, it’s no less emotionally powerful, stunningly directed, and intellectually stimulating.

Clocking in at just under three hours, this perfectly paced documentary follows a group of violence interrupters; people who make it a point to interrupt gang violence and confrontations in Chicago, and their stories both old and new.

Three members play the main focal points, the first and most interesting being former gang member and daughter of a gang icon, Ameena Matthews.   Daughter of Chicago icon Jeff Fort, Matthews plays a major role in the film, particularly when the film introduces the much talked about and now infamous death of Chicago student Darrion Albert.   Joining her is Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, two influential male members of the crew, known as CeaseFire. These are not only their stories, but the stories of those affected by both them and the violence surrounding them.

The film as a whole is immensely dense, yet has a really great ability to mix in the dense narrative and heavy themes given, with a great heart that makes yours grow three sizes every damn minute.   Checking in at roughly two hours and forty-five minutes, the film rather long (even calling for a tape change, something I’ve never seen happen in a screening), but feels like a 90 minute film.   It’s wonderfully paced, jumping from narrative to narrative with not only great skill, but also with the great ability to engross the audience in the lives of these people, the people behind the group, and the people that the group helps.

As a whole, some of the sections are truly better than others.   Both Williams and Matthews portions of the film are absolutely wonderful.   Williams’ scenes are often much lighter but also hold some of the most emotionally moving aspects, making it the film’s most well rounded portion.   Matthews’ scenes are truly informative, but her interaction with her main interruptee ultimately felt really repetitive, and not quite as rewarding as one would hope.   Bocanegra, however, has the least enjoyable portion of the film, as his story is enlightening, but ultimately lacks any emotional weight, and tells us very little about what these people do and their impact on lives.

For a film that runs just shy of three hours, The Interrupters is a remarkably breezy piece of documentary filmmaking.   Not overly dense on information, The Interrupters has a clear and present focus, and only steers away from it when it works and is narratively compelling.   Focusing on the ever rising state of violence in Chicago, it’s an epic narrative told in the guise of a very focused and minimal premise and center.

Feeling more along the lines of a 90 minute documentary, the film is not only squarely focused on one specific point and era in time, but does it more than coherently, and beautifully in the process.   The film itself is framed by the changing seasons, and that really keeps the film’s pacing not only apparent, but well done.   There are little to no lulls within this film’s narrative, and even less when taking into account the amazingly interesting and charismatic people you have to deal with.

Not short on visual flare, the film doesn’t draw attention to itself with any eye grabbing camera tricks or slick editing, but what it does is frame a film so well, and in such a high quality, that things like the powerful facial expressions given by these people are turned up to 11.   The film is a joy to watch, and will both move you to tears and laughs, and it helps when you are dealing with such a wonderfully talented filmmaker as Steve James.

Overall, The Interrupters is an absolute winner.   Directed gorgeously by Steve James, The Interrupters is a beautiful piece of documentary filmmaking that despite its nearly three hour long runtime, is one of the most watchable documentaries in quite some time.   Lacking any sort of political bent from its filmmaker, the film features great stories of people changing lives from ground up.   It also shows that violence committed doesn’t end at the singular act.   It continues as long as the family and friends involved live.   Despite a poor job portraying a character here and there, The Interrupters is far and away one of the best films, genre be damned, you’ll see all year.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.

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