Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters takes a strong subject, features compelling central figures, and is completely destroyed by its unwieldy runtime. While James’ 1994 film Hoop Dreams was almost three hours in length, it never felt long because the story had momentum and a clear goal. By contrast, The Interrupters feels redundant and aimless. It’s endlessly frustrating to watch an honorable documentary be destroyed by poor pacing. James’ desire to pay tribute to a group of modern-day heroes stops him from telling their story in the best way possible.
Urban neighborhoods in Chicago are suffering from an epidemic of violence. As one observer notes early in the film, “12 and 13-year-olds are walking around with bulletproof vests under their clothes.” Into the fray step the men and women of “Cease Fire”, a non-profit organization whose sole mission is to stop violence in their neighborhoods. The members of the group, nicknamed “The Interrupters”, are all former gang members and that personal experience not only provides a personal motivation to approach dangerous situations, but is crucial in helping to earn the respect of the people they’re trying to stop from violence. They make it clear that their mission isn’t to shut down gangs or reform society. They just don’t want another dead kid on the street.
The film focuses on three interrupters: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra. Individually, each interrupter is dynamic and charismatic. While you can tell they’ve been trained in mediation techniques, their words to stop violence never feel rehearsed. Every time they speak to an individual who is plotting violent retaliation, you can tell that they’re in the moment and while they’re going through a process, they’re actively engaged and fully devoted to making sure the cycle of violence stops.
But three stories are too much. Each scene, taken on its own, is captivating. But put all together, the film become crushingly repetitive. We have to go through each of The Interrupters’ back stories, their current home life, their relationships with their parents, and that’s all in addition to looking at their work with Cease Fire! It’s frustrating because nothing in the movie is unworthy of being seen. These are people worth caring about. Ameena is an incredible speaker and watching her personally relate to individuals and talk to crowds is magnificent. Cole is funny, sweet, and has incredible patience with his hot-headed charges. Eddie provides insight into how this epidemic of violence is affecting not just African-Americans, but the Latino community.
This is an important story and one worth telling, but it has to be told right. So many people walked out of my screening and I don’t think it’s because they lack compassion or think this issue isn’t worth exploring. They walked out because the film has no momentum. It’s a poorly-paced mess that jumps between stories with no rhyme or reason. It feels like James looked at all the footage he accumulated over the course of the year he spent filming and took all the parts he felt were best.
The Interrupters could be an incredible mini-series or a tight 100-minute film that unfortunately has to cut out one of the main characters and spend less time on the remaing two’s backstory. But as a 2 hour and 42 minute behemoth, it’s a failure. I respect James for wanting to give as much attention to these heroes as possible, but he does them a disservice by not telling their story in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: