INTERVIEW | Meet Ameena Matthews, One of Chicago’s Gang “Interrupters”

INTERVIEW | Meet Ameena Matthews, One of Chicago's Gang "Interrupters"

If you get to see Steve James’ new documentaryThe Interrupters” (which opened this week and is produced by writer Alex Kotlowitz), one woman strikes the viewer as so incredibly genuine, so effectively focused on making change in the streets, it is impossible to watch her on screen without getting chills. Ameena Matthews is a reformed woman from a checkered past; her father is Jeff Fort, a notorious Chicago gang leader and she herself was involved with a drug ring. After finding love, children, and faith in her Muslim family, Ameena joined the Chicago group of gang violence “interrupters,” CeaseFire, in taking violence protection to the streets — literally.

“The Interrupters” opened in limited release yesterday.

[Editor’s Note: This is the second column in which iW will regularly profile documentary subjects.]

How are you reacting to the film’s success at festivals all over?

I’m taking it in — I’m humbly and unexpectedly grateful that it’s turned out to be how it is and now I’m starting to clearly see in what direction I need to go to fight the cause, using the documentary as a platform. I’m thinking of the future of the hood and how I can better help out.

Taking the kids to Sundance was incredible.  How many kids from the hood can say that they went to Park City and saw mountains?  I’ve met amazing groups of people that unconditionally accept who I am and what I do.

And through traveling with this film, you’ve been meeting up with similar groups across America. How has that been?

We met up with a lot of groups that replicated the model.  There’s a lot of people out there doing a lot of great things, helping the war on poverty, getting kids in school so they can put the guns down.  There’s a lot of people doing a lot of things in the trenches, in the outskirts and the out-rims, it’s outstanding.  With the work that they do and the goals they want to achieve.  It’s been so overwhelming for everybody to see. 

It’s really so wonderful to continue the conversation on just a what can we do?  Let’s continue to do it.  “This is what I can do, Ameena,” people tell me.  It starts a conversation of action.

What was it like being followed by the crew for the film?

Oh, the Stalkers? I call them the Stalkers. Alex did a write-up in the NYT about our organization, and a book that had some people that we knew in it with pseudonyms but we knew who they were — “There Are No Children Here” — and who in Chicago doesn’t know about [Steve James’] “Hoop Dreams”?  We knew their history, we knew their resume. 

A couple of years after “There are No Children Here,” we thought doing the film would be good.  [CeaseFire leader] Tio was collectively telling the table.  Let’s do something: give them something, give them some mediation.  I was not forced to give mediation. 

I was always the spokesperson for Englewood, so I told other people to get in front of the cameras. People would have shit to say — Ameena’s always in the film and always in the news.  I gave them something, I didn’t know it was something that they can use.  There it was.  Everyone knows what I did back in the day; they didn’t pay attention to the cameras until after the fact.

How do you want this film to get out in the world and make change?

In schools as well as — we have to get into the schools, I don’t know how law enforcement sees it. There are a lot of educators — the ones would allow me to come into their classrooms and talk before the film came out — those kinds of people can use it.

We had several community screenings. They’re very happy about it — happy that the conversation has now turned into action.  Everybody is very happy about it.

And now the film is opening up in theaters. It’s for real!

I’m still in one of those “pinch me” moments.

It’s opening in Chicago [this past] Wednesday. I told my friends, I’m gonna get a red carpet if you’ve got to pull it out of your kitchen.

There’s purple hearts for those that are wounded in Afghanistan, but not much for those who do our work. We’re looking for some redemption — and change.

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