Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Interrupters: A Story of Restorative Justice

Josh Larsen


March 23, 2012

By Josh Larsen

What does justice look like at the movies?

Usually it’s characterized by righteous anger and carries the sting of violence. Think Gladiator, Taken, Dirty Harry. Justice is a commodity on the big screen, something that has been stolen from the hero and must be taken back by brute force.

Yet, a rare, Gospel-tinged retort to this brand of justice can be found in The Interrupters, an acclaimed, 2011 documentary that came out on video last month. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and produced by Alex Kotlowitz (author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America), the film seeks justice through compassion and community. Its subjects are a handful of "violence interrupters," whose job it is to intervene in disputes in crime-ridden Chicago neighborhoods before the arguments lead to bloodshed. The interrupters do this not only through their physical presence, but also through something even more powerful: showing the potentially violent "offenders" that their lives matter, that they're worthy of respect and care.

Ameena Matthews is one of these interrupters. A former gang member and daughter of infamous Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort, Matthews has the bravado, authority and commanding voice needed to step into a roiling group of teens on the street and challenge them to be better versions of themselves. In one key scene, Matthews takes her message into the funeral of a slain teen, pointing to the body and demanding that the feuding parties in attendance stop the cycle of violence right there.

The interrupters program is based on the work of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, who compares the spread of violence to the spread of infectious diseases. The interrupters try to stop the infection at its fountainhead, which is where Matthews lives—at the source.

Their approach isn’t all about confrontation, however. Indeed, most of the techniques employed by the interrupters involve walking alongside people who are on the edge of violence. One of those folks is a woman who has been in and out of incarceration throughout her young life. She’s only known condemnation – from family, from peers, from authorities – but Matthews takes a different approach, offering these fiery words: "Do you want to be loved? Absolutely. Do you deserve to be loved? Absolutely."

Two ghastly, societally imposed assumptions are being challenged here: First, that “criminals” are so defiant and antisocial that they don’t even want compassion; second, that they don’t deserve it in the first place. The Interrupters turns those assumptions upside down. When people are met with restorative, rather than simply punitive, justice, real change can come.

Indeed, the interrupters themselves are evidence of this change. Each interrupter we meet, including Matthews, comes from a criminal past. Cobe Williams spent time in and out of prison before joining the movement; in the film, he mentors a young man recently released from prison himself. Eddie Bocanegra committed murder at age 17; we see him share the grief of a 16-year-old girl whose brother died in her arms. At an interrupters meeting, one of the leaders points to the people in the room and remarks, “We’ve got over 500 years of prison time at this table, and that’s a lot of wisdom.”

It takes real wisdom—not to mention grace—to recognize that the faces of the interrupters represent part of the solution rather than remnants of the problem. English poet Francis Thompson used the phrase “Hound of Heaven” to describe the relentless way Jesus Christ seeks to reclaim each of us, no matter where we hide or what our sins. Thompson’s poem is reflected in The Interrupters, a movie whose sense of justice is unrelenting but never oppressive, empathetic but never weak. Watching these interrupters is like watching hounds of Heaven in the chase.

—Josh Larsen is editor and film critic for Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”