Directed by Steve James
Counterprogramming to the gleeful battle royals of summer action hedonism, the catchily branded defusers of Steve James's latest documentary seek to stop violence through verbal interventions. Ex-gang members turned social workers Ameena, Cobe and Eddie are the representative portraits of a Chicago project spearheaded by the organization Ceasefire; past violence provides streetcred for their present peacemaking. As ever in public policy, the metaphorical lines are drawn: does the city's stubbornly high murder rate make it an urban war zone (which attracts the National Guard after one especially deadly run), or, per Ceasefire's epidemiologist head, is violence a treatable epidemic?
James, whose family saga Hoop Dreams was nominated for an Oscar, dream-teams with Alex Kotlowitz, author of public-housing embed There Are No Children Here (and here acting as interviewer). The two have clocked extensive footage on the interrupters' beats and with their families, revisiting past cautionary personal histories, and tagging along with their rounds, which comprise nimbleness (especially Ameena's skillful jujitsu of charm and scolding), diplomacy, and above all persistence, with not a little bit of humor. Yet, lacking the fleshed-out arcs and specific detail of Hoop Dreams, it all becomes more directly social-conscience filmmaking pitched cathartically to the back row, risking cliché in its presentational stance.
James and Kotlowitz are admirably unfashionable in returning to territory that, in policy debate and pop culture visibility, gets treated as issue from a different era (turn of the 90s), forgotten amidst falling crime rates in our media capital. Nonetheless, partly owing to a lack of outside perspectives which the film's contentions really demand, the result is an overlong, under-examined work that one feels guilty for not liking and then annoyed at for not being stronger.
Editor's Note: This review refers to the 144-minute cut of the film which screened for press (and at festivals earlier this year); the theatrical release, made available after this review went to press, will run 124 minutes.
Opens July 29