Steve James is a remarkable documentary filmmaker who has given us a series of amazing films starting with Hoop Dreams that explore some of the more difficult issues in our society including race, poverty, crime, and violence. His film on the Trial of Allen Iverson revealed the complex racial discourse at work beneath his hometown of Hampton, VA. His most recent film, The Interrupters, screened today at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival. It is a powerful film that captures the plague of urban violence that plagues are cities – in this case Chicago – and goes beyond documenting to show a group of activists (many with troubled pasts) working for a group called Ceasefire.
Ceasefire seeks to engage troubled young people and interrupt their dysfunctional behavior patterns of anger, crime, drug use, irresponsibility and violence. The Interrupters are acting heroically to try to save their imploding self-destructive communities. While the footage and the story are compelling, it could still use some editing since at over 2.5 hours it is a little too long. The length is understandable since James filmed over 300 hours, but it still needs to be paired down further to capture a manageable story.
The other problem with the film is more complex. The Interrupters are fighting on the front lines in their efforts to save their communities. But the fight that they are engaged in is almost impossible, because their personal and human efforts to save individuals are divorced from a larger political reality. The film is a deeply personal and human, but it fails to address the deeper social problems in education, unemployment that have created the epidemic of violence. They are treating the symptoms of those who are already infected without searching out the causes of the disease.
Sadly, the problems of the poor have disappeared from our political discourse since the collapse of the “War on Poverty.” The current administration – led by our first urban President in decades – has failed to offer any sort of serious urban or anti-poverty agenda. Our political discourse focuses on the “middle class” and pretends as if poverty doesn’t exist. Poverty has ceased to exist on American TV and in most of our news media coverage. Middle Class America has stopped seeing poverty which is quietly hidden away outside of our consciousness. The social contract that binds our society together is broken. We need far more films like the Interrupters to confront the American public with the realities of poverty and violence that are eating away at the soul of our society.
Hopefully, many people will watch a film like The Interrupters and ask themselves two questions: What can I do as an individual to help groups like this make a difference in my community? What can I do as a citizen to get my government to act to make the structural changes that are needed to transform these communities?