26/31: The Interrupters
Steve James documentaries get you inside. By the end of a James film — Hoop Dreams, Stevie, the inexplicably non-shortlisted The Interrupters — you know the subjects like cousins. You care what happens to them, you feel familial pride for them, and you want to shake them for screwing up and self-destructing, too. When the credits roll, you may want to start the movie again at the beginning so you can visit with them some more.
How does James do that? I think it has to do with a mutual trust between him and the people whose stories he tells, that they know he'll show what needs showing, and he knows the audience can handle it. It's also expert pacing, crisp chyrons, and smart subject selection — maybe mostly that last thing. The Interrupters follows a Chicago violence-mediation organization and its…"clients," I guess is the right term, over the course of a year. Many of the mediators of CeaseFire have come out of "the game," have done time, know how it is on the street, which positions them perfectly for the delicate (and dangerous) work they do, but their manner of talking about that work, or the challenges faced by kids coming up now, isn't sound-bitey. Ameena Matthews, for example, has a great narrative arc to her life thus far, one of debasement and wandering, followed by redemption — and she knows that. Part of what makes her effective as a mediator is her ability to frame that for others. But she's never phony or rehearsed. She's just there, in it, letting us into it too.
The clients James focuses on also seem to have a particular flavor to their speech, their conversation. Either he and his team can sense which people will put things together for us coherently, or they know that, after a while, when everyone's forgotten the cameras, anyone's story has a unique texture. It's hard to explain what I mean, but one guy CeaseFire works with, Flamo, is a charismatic guy with a vengeful heart and flawless comic timing, and at first it looks like he might ditch the mediator and take his gun up the street for some payback, but then he's like, so wait, we can just go to lunch right now? Okay, then: "I'll just go put my pistol up." It's hilarious; he's (probably) not kidding. Flamo goes through a process that itself is a great story, but then his VO of himself as we check in with him periodically makes it great in a different way.
Not to oversell it here; I know I can get a little "well Steve James did this" and "when Steve James said that in voice-over," and you're all "shut up about your documentary boyfriend Steve James already, dang." Even Steve James knows he's my DB now, which is a little embarrassing, but what can you do. (Don't worry, Mrs. Steve James! It's not like that!) But it's a good movie. It wastes zero time getting into the thick of it and introducing you to your new friends. It sits just long enough on the shot of the Hennessy bottles lined up at an impromptu sidewalk memorial for a young teenager, and it lets mediator Eddie Bocanegra speak as long as he needs to to get to his point. Sometimes it's not long at all ("Fuck tomorrow, that's what they gonna tell you"), but other times, talking about the crime that put him inside for over a decade, he has to take his time. The two hours fly right by, and if you liked Hoop Dreams, you'll like this too. (And if you don't know if you like Hoop Dreams because you've never seen it, please give it a try, if only because Arthur Agee and his BF are making some uh-may-zing turn-of-the-'90s fashion happen. Love.)
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Ameena Matthews Arthur Agee documentaries Eddie Bocanegra famous boyfriends Flamo Hoop Dreams movies Steve James Stevie