In a documentary career defined by fierce commitment to his subjects, Steve James delivers his most ambitious project yet in “The Interrupters.” Shot over the course of a year, this overwhelming undertaking from the “Hoop Dreams” helmer profiles a courageous group of Chicago activists who intervene in street fights and then coach the scrappers in conflict resolution. Taking us into the heart of the conflict, James captures candid counseling sessions and heated tussles with equal dynamism, but never quite earns his 164-minute running time. Pic’s unwieldy length will limit theatrical prospects, but boost its cred for broadcast and homevid.

The “violence interrupters” are members of CeaseFire, an inner-city community response group whose in-the-trenches approach acknowledges that, while Chicago’s gangs aren’t going anywhere soon, the possibility exists to transform their behavior through one-on-one engagement. Watching the doc, in which a handful of individual heroes emerges, you can almost imagine the actors lining up to play these inspirational characters down the road.

Ameena Matthews, daughter of notorious Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort and a reformed banger herself, is such a compelling figure that James would have done well to focus the film on her alone. Instead, he splits his attention with two other CeaseFire mentors, Cobe Williams (who turned his life around after a sobering 13-year prison term) and Eddie Bocanegra (still making amends for a murder when he was 17). Even CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman has a rough stretch in his past, suggesting that all those involved are committed to preventing young people from repeating their own mistakes.

Founded by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, CeaseFire treats its employees like “disease control workers,” tasking them with stopping the spread of violence in the community. According to Slutkin, the root cause — and the one that most easily escalates — is the prevailing attitude that violence is an appropriate way to address personal grievances. To alter that perception would be to save countless lives, though the tendency toward retribution is seen to be so deeply embedded in the culture, change doesn’t come easily and seldom seems to last.

For instance, Caprysha, a teenage abuse victim, belligerently accepts Matthews’ advice, only to find herself back in custody time and again. On the positive side, however, one of Williams’ charges comes across as prime material to join the interrupters’ cause: After getting out of jail, he tells his younger brother that he wants to be a better role model.

James spent enough time with his subjects that they seem to forget the cameras are there. Their sometimes heated interactions give the distinct sense that these young people can’t be told to transform their lives, but must learn from personal mistakes — the old hand-on-the-hot-burner school of experience — which makes it CeaseFire’s role to minimize the damage until they come around.

“The Interrupters” challenges assumptions from both Hollywood (with its need for happy endings) and the news media (whose alarmism suggests that intervention is a lost cause), building a case for cautious optimism and slow, incremental progress. Relatively early in the film, James finds himself a witness to a spontaneous street fight in which angry relatives pull a knife on a rival, and Matthews is there to break it up. Though the film never hits that height of excitement again, James observes a number of other powerful scenes, including the poignant reconciliation between a young ex-con and the employees of a barber shop he robbed years earlier.

James was drawn to the subject after reading a New York Times Magazine story by Alex Kotlowitz (who also served as the pic’s producer), filming more than 300 hours over 14 months. While he can’t be faulted on the coverage front, James chooses the most mundane format possible in presenting the material: Arranged by season and unspooling in chronological order, “The Interrupters” emphasizes the passage of time over the strong characters contained within. It also runs far longer than the subject seems to demand.

Chicago attracted national attention for a number of violent incidents over the course of the film (at one point, the National Guard stepped in after 20 people were shot during a single night), which suggests at least one alternate structure James might have taken with the material: The case of Derrion Albert, a young man beaten to death on camera, is so central to the issue that it’s surprising James doesn’t introduce it earlier. Bare-bones production values emphasize content over style, with music used only sparingly.

The Interrupters

  • Production: A Kartemquin Films presentation for WGBH/Frontline, the Independent Television Service, BBC Storyville in association with Rise Films. Produced by Steve James, Alex Kotlowitz. Executive producers, Justine Nagan, Gordon Quinn, Teddy Leifer, Paul Taylor, Sall Jo Fifer, David Fanning, Michael Sullivan. Co-producer, Zak Piper. Directed by Steve James. Inspired by the New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), James; editors, James, Aaron Wickenden; music, Joshua Abrams; sound, Zak Piper. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2011. Running time: 164 MIN.
  • With: With: Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, Ricardo "Cobe" Williams, Tio Hardiman, Gary Slutkin.