In 1994, cultural journalist Alex Kotlowitz was considering some new book projects. His agent offered something intriguing. “They asked me if I wanted to do a book version of Hoop Dreams,” he recalls.
After watching the film on a specially loaned VHS tape, Kotlowitz did something few writers do on principle: He turned down the offer. “I saw the film, and it was extraordinary and I realized immediately there was no way a book could improve on the film,” he said. “That was my introduction to Steve’s work.”
Made in collaboration with Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert, Steve James’s Hoop Dreams detonated public consciousness at the Sundance Film festival that January. Film critic Roger Ebert called it the greatest documentary ever made. A dense tapestry that explored the intertwined fates of two Chicago high school kids, Arthur Agee and William Gates, who dreamed of using basketball to escape their socially restricted lives, Hoop Dreams launched James’s career.
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His career trajectory naturally intersected professionally and personally with that of Kotlowitz, whose equally remarkable 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, echoed Hoop Dreams in key ways. Kotlowitz’s book told in unflinching, lyrical detail the struggle of two young brothers, Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, trying to navigate the gangs and violence of the public housing project, the Henry Horner Homes, on the city’s West Side. The book captured the prestigious Carl Sandburg Award.
The meeting of James and Kotlowitz was inevitable. They lived just miles apart in Oak Park. Introduced by mutual friends in the mid-1990s, the two became immediate friends who talked constantly about finding the right project to collaborate.
That time is now.
The two artists have melded their talents in the new documentary The Interrupters. James directed and Kotlowitz produced the riveting new movie that follows three “violence interrupters,” former gang members who now tirelessly monitor Chicago’s danger zones, from Englewood to Little Village, drawing on their own street credibility to help defuse violent encounters before they erupt.
The Interrupters opens theatrically in New York on Friday as the opening wave of the film’s national roll out. Locally, the movie premieres Aug. 12 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. in Chicago.
(The movie’s New York-based theatrical distributor, Cinema Guild, and James, are currently working to get a theatrical showing in Oak Park.)
Like Hoop Dreams and There Are No Children Here, the movie intertwines the stories of three separate conflict mediators that provides its audience direct, unmediated experience into their frightening and dramatic "work."
The daughter of the notorious El Rukn leader Jeff Fort, Ameena Matthews is intuitive and fearless and relies on a preternatural calmness for the desired results. Cobe Williams, who spent more than 14 years in prison, disarms people with his sly sense of humor. Eddie Bocanegra is the most haunted of the movie’s subjects. As a 17-year-old he killed a rival gang member. He now struggles to atone for past mistakes while making sure the high-risk offenders he encounters avoid a similar path.
Their work is carried out under the auspices of the Chicago-based CeaseFire, an unorthodox organization founded in 1995 by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin. Tio Hardiman is the organization’s energetic director, whose charisma makes him a winning screen presence.
The film’s genesis developed out of a New York Times Magazine article Kotlowitz wrote about CeaseFire originally published in May 2008. Kotlowitz found out about CeaseFire through a guy he met playing pick up basketball games.
“My book came out 20 years ago and I’ve lost three kids that I knew back to violence and another is serving time for murder," Kotlowitz said. “The one thing that hasn’t changed is that violence is consistent and stubborn. It was something that I was tangling with it myself. I heard about CeaseFire. I saw the bumper stickers. I thought it was yet one more gang intervention program.
“I met this guy, and I really gave him an earful and never really let him get in a word edgewise. I went back to him and apologized and asked him about the group and I was immediately interested,” he said.
Two key figures from Hoop Dreams, William’s older brother Curtis Gates and Arthur’s father, Arthur (Bo) Agee, Sr., were subsequently murdered, their deaths never solved.
“Alex and I were talking about different projects, either fiction, where he’d write a screenplay or even looking at some of his nonfiction pieces from the past,” James said. “I knew he was working on this piece. I read it, and I pretty much immediately I called him."
The film is a collaboration not only of James and Kotlowitz, but also Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based film collective and production company that produced Hoop Dreams and five other of James’s films. The PBS series Frontline was also an early backer. Following its theatrical run, The Interrupters is scheduled to have its television debut there in the fall.
James characterized the new movie as Hoop Dreams on steroids. “We shot 250 hours of footage in four and a half years on Hoop Dreams,” James said. “With this film, we shot 300 hours in 14 months."
The movie perfectly synthesizes the two artists' talents, James's ability to tell stories visually and Kotlowitz's talent for getting his subjects to reveal themselves emotionally and dramatically.
Going forward, the two are again considering new projects to work together. The first one proved a near perfect experience.
"Seeing the work of the [violence interrupters], you come out the other end with a real sense of inspiration," James said. "People can change and people want to change. People don't want to be violent."