See this film right now — even if you have to sit in front of your computer and watch it streaming free from the PBS website. See it so you can gush with me over the role that Ameena Matthews plays in stopping violence in Chicago.

Made by the same documentary director as Hoop Dreams (1994), Steve James, The Interrupters shows us how you might go about dropping violence and homicide rates among young people who are largely untouchable by ordinary social institutions. The group CeaseFire hires members of local neighborhoods, often individuals like Matthews who used to be formidable members of gangs.

Watching Matthews talk people down is the most amazing thing I’ve seen, and she often does this at funerals and prayer vigils. Grieving and angered over the death of a friend, a group of young people might rouse themselves into an angry gang, eager for retribution. It’s at that point that she inserts herself to get people to calm down.

She does an amazing thing: she is simultaneously threatening and maternal. She gets right up in someone’s face to make sure he hears her. She bobs like a boxer. All the while she speaks of her own past as a gang enforcer (which many of the kids know about by reputation) and the mistakes she made. She tells them to stop. She looks meaningfully at the tallest and oldest of them — again, with a look that shows her vast, cynical knowledge of machismo and retribution — and says, “I’m looking to you.”

Sure, she’s beautiful and always wrapped in a headscarf. Sure, her father was a formidable gang leader, and some of the kids have heard about that. But what she does is an unholy mix of smart perception, distraction, offering perspective, berating. For us gender watchers, it’s a fascinating snapshot of what a powerful woman might do with her smarts, her gifts, her own troubled past. And when she has a series of interactions with a troubled teen girl coming back from prison and trying to get her life together, we see another level of Matthews’ maternalism.

Fantastic film — and not just because of Matthews. I’d heard people muttering complaints about the bizarre list of finalists for the Academy Awards for Best Documentary, and now I have to agree. I’ve seen two of the finalists and they’re deeply disappointing in contrast to some of my favorites this year, including Buck and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Steve James also missed out on a nomination back in the ’90s for Hoop Dreams, which led to a revolution (supposedly) in how those finalists were chosen. So let’s all give The Interrupters some love to make up for its lack of recognition with the Oscars.

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