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Gang, Interrupted


February 1, 2012

Hoop Dreams director Steve James’s new film follows former gang members who neutralize Chicago gang violence

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Photograph courtesy of Kartemquin Films by Aaron Wickenden

At first, The Interrupters seems consistent with Steve James’s filmography. The director’s most recent documentary explores themes of race, class, poverty, and violence, as did the award-winning Hoop Dreams (1994), about two Chicago high school students with aspirations of becoming professional basketball players, and Stevie (2003), in which James reconnects with the troubled young man he had mentored as a Big Brother. But unlike his previous films, The Interrupters examines the subject of violence head on. He documents a year inside the lives of former gang members in Chicago who now intervene in violent conflicts. It is his most issues-oriented film and, it turns out, his most inspiring.

The “Violence Interrupters,” as they are called, work for the organization CeaseFire, which was founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin who believes that the spread of violence mimics that of infectious diseases. The treatment of violence follows a similar logic: go to the most infected and stop it at the source. Working independently from the police, the interrupters are not trying to shut down gangs or drug markets; their one objective is to stop killings. Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Boconegra, whose past involvement in gangs gives them credibility on the streets, intervene in arguments and mediate gang retaliations. They are also indefatigable mentors to those teetering on the brink of violence, with Matthews, for example, taking the troubled teenage girl she met at a street corner to get her nails done at a salon for the first time.

In cooperation with producer and author Alex Kotlowitz, James immerses the viewer in the lives of these interrupters as they carry out their dangerous, exhausting, often frustrating work and atone for their own pasts in drug-dealing, robbery, and murder. His film not only elucidates the dynamics of gang violence and the factors that contribute to it but also illustrates the effectiveness of the interrupters’ efforts. The film manages to examine violence, the nature of which is endlessly debated by academics and policymakers, by relentlessly focusing on the interrupters’ lived experiences in all their complexity. By directing a film about people, James has also created a film about ideas. Its tone is much like that of a conversation with James—knowledgeable, insightful, and reflective as well as funny and sincere.

James spoke to me by phone from his home in Chicago.

Emily Brennan for Guernica

Guernica: In interviews, you said urban violence was much more in the public’s mind twenty years ago. As a society, we’ve become numb to it or, at least, complacent with the thought that there’s nothing more we can do about violence in poor communities. You also often mention that the murders of Bo Agee, the father of one of the main subjects in Hoop Dreams, and Curtis Gates, the brother of the other subject, have haunted you. Were you numb to this violence?

Steve James: To an extent I was. You see another article about someone who’s been murdered, and sometimes you read it, sometimes you don’t. The more articles there are, the less inclined you are to read them. “Another tragic loss,” I’d think. “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.” What shook me out of this numbness was seeing what happened to the Agee and Gates families. When you see that happen, you think, “Whoa, this strikes close to home. This is happening every day in the paper. People are really going through this.” That was key. If I hadn’t experienced that kind of loss, who knows if I would’ve wanted to do this film.

People are angry, people are upset, people are devastated. It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve lost.

I also expected people in those communities to be numb to it. It’s true that they’re not surprised by it anymore, not surprised at all, but they’re definitely not numb, especially when it hits close to home. People are angry, people are upset, people are devastated. It doesn’t matter how many people you’ve lost.

Guernica: Were you surprised those two murders? I know Bo Agee had a past with drug abuse, but otherwise those families were on the straight and narrow path.

Steve James: They did surprise me because Bo had turned his life around, and Curtis was never involved in criminal activity. He was working at FedEx at the time. They’re the quintessential victims. A lot of people killed in these neighborhoods are not involved in criminal activity, which would make them more endangered. A lot of times, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or it’s a fistfight in which someone decided to go back and get a gun. When murders were at their height in the early nineties during the crack epidemic, there was a lot of criminal- and gang-related murder. Now, even for people involved in gangs, it’s not gang-related, it’s personal.

Guernica: In The Interrupters, during mediations, Ameena Matthews often talks about ego. She says, “Don’t let your ego set in.” Another time, she says, “The fight is with your ego.” What’s behind that message?

When you have people who don’t feel they are in control of their lives, the one thing they feel they can control is their reputation. You want to be viewed with respect. It becomes this Darwinian struggle.

Steve James: In the film, Tio Hardiman, director for CeaseFire Illinois, talks about when you have people who don’t feel they are in control of their lives, the one thing they feel they can control is their reputation. You want to be viewed with respect. It becomes this Darwinian struggle. Someone does something, and then the person feels if he doesn’t respond, he’ll be known as weak and encourage others to take action on him. “I don’t want to be a small fish in the pond.” That’s part of what goes on.

Another part Ameena addresses in the movie. She gives you this example of a kid waking up in the morning: “You don’t have enough to eat. You’re wearing hand-me-downs. Your mom is being abused by her boyfriend. You’re being abused by your mom’s boyfriend. By the time you get to school, someone bumps into you, and that person is going to get all of that pent-up rage.” That absolutely goes on.

It helps explain what goes on when you read in the paper that someone killed someone over a pair of tennis shoes. You read these outlandish things, and if you don’t have a greater perspective on it, you think, “Who are these people? What can you do with someone like that?” I’m not trying to excuse that behavior, but what I think you don’t get, which we try to do in the film, is that these petty things loom large because of these underlying issues.

Guernica: Do you agree with the director of CeaseFire, Gary Slutkin, that violence is a disease?

Steve James: We think violence acts like a disease. It mimics a disease—Gary says that in the film—in the sense that the spread of disease has more to do with behavior than the lack of antibiotics. AIDS is a perfect example. If you go out and have unprotected sex with lots of people, that behavior puts you at risk. Similarly, violent behavior can spread. One violent act can elicit a response. It can spread to people in a peer group so that they feel that they have to respond. It can pass generation to generation almost like a genetic disease. Tio talks about breaking down a person’s family history: “Your father was fucked-up, your grandfather was fucked-up, you’re fucked-up.”

Violence can behave like a disease. That insight gives a different frame of reference that is designed to take the judgment out of it, to take the good-versus-bad-people view out of it. For people in neighborhoods where violence is prevalent, violence becomes a way of dealing and coping with their lives. No matter how wrong it is, violence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad people.

In the film, Flamo is a perfect example. When you first meet him, you think, yes, he’s funny, but he’s also scary. He’s saying, “I’m going to go do what I have to do, and if it puts me back in prison, then so be it.” He was in a murderous rage. By the end of the film, you see that more than anything he needed someone to care and point him in a different direction. To this day, more than a year since the film was completed, he’s still doing well.

Guernica: In Slate, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh wrote that Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 policy brief on urban ghettos, the so-called Moynihan Report, produced a schism in America: “Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of ‘blaming the victim.’ Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families.” Was this debate in your mind during the film’s production? Does Slutkin’s belief that violence is not about good versus bad people help us move past this debate?

Steve James: This debate, which Venkatesh articulates well, has been the classic liberal-conservative debate about poverty and welfare for decades. From my point of view, there’s truth in both points of view. Hoop Dreams, when it came out, was embraced by many liberals, even leftists. I think the Communist Workers’ Party paper wrote a glowing review of it, calling it an indictment of capitalism. But then the conservative columnist George Will wrote this very positive column saying Hoop Dreams, for him, was about how important families are to succeeding in life. Both are right. I think the film’s politics is closer to liberal than George Will’s, but he is right that the importance of family is on display.

In my experience, people who have succeeded at pulling themselves out of dire situations—and I’m thinking of Ameena and Cobe, for example—had some foundation in their lives that really stayed with them. They may have gotten involved in some serious criminal activity, as both of them did, and there may have been times when they thought they wouldn’t make it, but they both found their way back to the values they learned from their grandparents. The people who have the hardest time getting there are those like Caprysha, in this film, who didn’t even know who her father was, whose mother wasn’t there, who spent a lot time in foster care. For someone like Caprysha to get there, it’s a lot tougher. My point is that the social forces liberals like to point to are real—I absolutely agree—but, at the same time, a good grounding from a family can make a huge difference.

What I really like about the interrupters is that they’re not waiting around for us to solve this as a political problem. They’re sensitive to it as a political problem—they have a lot of insight on that front—but they’re out there on the streets every day trying to deal with people on an individual basis. That means being a mentor or hooking people up with jobs. It means a lot of different things, all of which echo these arguments. If there are no jobs, what happens to a Flamo? What happens to a Lil’ Mikey when he comes out of prison if he can’t find a job? Had he not been so determined to find a job, he’d probably be back doing [armed robberies] as he did before.

Guernica: I attended a screening of The Interrupters at Columbia University, where afterward you gave a talk. Do you remember the last man who got up to ask a question? He was upset about the scene in which Lil’ Mikey is raking leaves and says he’s just happy to have a job. The man went off on a rant, “This is all Lil’ Mikey has. I can’t believe it. Why aren’t we talking about the lack of jobs, the lack of education, the history of slavery, poverty?” What’s your responsibility, as a filmmaker, to explain the social forces at work in the lives of these people?

Steve James: The film has gotten a lot of great reviews from all quarters. The reviews that have taken issue with the film, even positive reviews, want that analysis that you’re talking about. They say, “I’m seeing all this real life experience but I want the analysis and framework.” There were other people who said, “Thank god this didn’t succumb to being an analytical piece, and it just immerses the viewer.” It comes down to my interest as a filmmaker. I’m not interested in expert analysis. The film is informed by that. I’m someone who has read a good deal about those arguments and understands what those positions are. But we didn’t want to make a film analytic in nature.

I’ve always made films in which people living these situations speak of their experiences. They also sometimes speak of these issues, but it’s grounded in their own experience, not in an analysis from an academic or policy perspective. And that’s my particular thing because I want the viewer to wrestle with these questions themselves. You see what a difference a job makes to Lil’ Mikey and Flamo. And yes, they’re not great jobs, but you see that having a job is part and parcel of someone having a sense of themselves and feeling they live a worthwhile life that’s worth saving. We didn’t set out to make a film about jobs, but I think anyone with any sensitivity gets that jobs are important in these communities. Other filmmakers could have put you less in the lives of these people and more analysis, and that would have been a perfectly valid film to make. I feel I’ve read books and seen films that have grappled with the analysis, but we haven’t seen enough films that put you in the shoes of the people in these communities.

Guernica: Why do you think it’s been so widely received?

Steve James: The film is way more inspiring than anyone, including us, would have thought. People think, because of its subject matter, it’s going to be a tragic and sobering journey. What they don’t expect is to realize there are people out there who can be saved, and there are people from these communities doing this very important work. Ameena Matthews doesn’t have a college degree, but she has a PhD in this work.

Guernica: In the film, I couldn’t help but notice how little police presence there was in comparison to the interrupters’ constant involvement. Was that a choice you made, or does this reflect these neighborhoods’ reality?

Steve James: The cops’ presence is unmistakable in these neighborhoods. You see police cruisers all the time. When there’s a murder, they’re all over the place. In that respect, they’re very present. But for people in those communities, their engagement with the police is as minimal as possible. If you had your child murdered, you hope they solve the crime, of course, but on a day-in, day-out basis, there’s a historical mistrust. The police aren’t considered a positive experience in the lives of many people—not everybody, but many people in these neighborhoods. Also, going to the police, depending on who you are and why you’re going, is perceived as the wrong thing to do, so the police are not a very viable option. It’s frustrating for the police. They talk about how hard it is to get cooperation.

The interrupters offer an alternative path people can go to. Flamo, in his more sober moment, actually reached out to Cobe. By the time Cobe arrived, Flamo had been drinking and was on a murderous rampage. But he did call Cobe and, on some level, was looking for help. He wasn’t going to call the police because the police were looking for him. And the interrupters offer a way for people to walk away from a situation with some dignity. When Ameena says, “Stand down and let me talk to the other side,” that’s a way for people to save face and not be perceived as having been punked or afraid.

The relationship between the police and the interrupters is complicated. We didn’t get into that because we didn’t want to compromise the effectiveness of the interrupters in the streets by spending a lot of the time in the film talking about the problems they have with cops and cops have with them. We didn’t want to fuel the tensions further.

Guernica: What are those tensions?

Steve James: The cops wonder how sincere these men and women are. Is this paycheck so they can pretend to be doing good for the community but are still out doing whatever illegal stuff they used to do? They accuse interrupters of being hug-a-thugs. They think the interrupters should be telling the police when they know of criminal activity. They should be cooperating with the cops, and why aren’t they?

Guernica: In There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz writes about gangs having done community service before and it not quite working out.

Steve James: Actually, it was Jeff Fort’s gang. [Jeff Fort, founder of the Black P. Stones gang in Chicago, is father of Ameena Matthews.] He was always involved in illegal activity, but there was a community-organization aspect of what he was doing too. He even got federal funds and an invitation to Nixon’s inauguration. He didn’t go, but he got invited. (Laughs).

Guernica: There’s a long history in Chicago.

Steve James: Right. And there are cops out there with whom the interrupters have a history, and these cops won’t view them differently no matter what they do. They get nervous around cops because of their history with them. Cobe told me a story about being pulled over while he was on a date. The cop knows his record because he just ran his plate, and the cop says to his date, “Hey you know what this guy has done prison time for?” And Cobe’s like, “Why are you telling her this stuff?” So the interrupters have a history and a well-deserved desire to not have anything to do with cops, even though they’re now doing good work.

Guernica: You said the song during the closing credits, “Don’t Give Up on Me” by Solomon Burke, was apt because the interrupters won’t give up on these people.

Steve James: It’s also about not giving up on these communities.

Guernica: Well, how do we do that? The film is not a political call to action, but it does move people to want to do something about it.

Steve James: We did a lot of screenings on the festival circuit, and this question comes up a lot, “What can I do?” It was coming from people who don’t live in these neighborhoods. We said there’s all kinds of ways people can help. Get political. If you’re in a position in which you have influence either through voting or connections to people who make policy, speak up. You can make donations to CeaseFire or organizations like it because it’s important work and is always underfunded. You can volunteer to be mentor. You see mentoring going on with Ameena, Eddie, and Cobe, but you don’t have to be from that community to be a mentor of value. In fact, if you’re not from that community, you can be more valuable in some respects because you can expose children to a wider world of possibility and connections. There’s a lot of ways. I’m not someone who gives prescriptives at the end of my films. This is the closest to an issue-oriented film I’ve ever made. You don’t have to be an interrupter. You have to be a special person to do that kind of work, but there are other ways.

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