Made in collaboration with the journalist Alex Kotlowitz on whose New York Times article the film is based, The Interrupters centres on CeaseFire, an organisation established in African-American and Hispanic Chicago in 1995 on the initiative of the epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who aimed to fight the endemic violence in Chicago’s ghettos by bringing to bear his experience of nipping infectious diseases in the bud in Africa. His idea was expanded by Tio Hardiman, a former drug addict and criminal, who became a director of CeaseFire and in 2004 devised the role of violence interrupters, people with knowledge of the local territory who could spot incipient hostility.
It’s a difficult and dangerous activity demanding tact and understanding, and the film concentrates on the work of the eloquent Hardiman and three other interrupters, also former criminals, who have found a very American style of redemption through their work for CeaseFire. They’re Eddie Bocanegra, a gifted painter who spent 14 years in jail for murder, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams, sentenced three times for drug-related offences and attempted murder, and, most remarkably, the charismatic daughter of a notorious criminal currently serving life, Ameena Matthews, who’s now married to the imam of a mosque and community centre on Chicago’s South Side. They’re observed in action over a year, working patiently on individual cases, experiencing setbacks, enjoying small successes, but never losing faith in their work. It’s an encouraging film, though its overall context in an America 50 years after the election of Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson is depressing.