‘The Interrupters,’ ‘Appropriate Adult,’ and New Ways to Tell Stories About Crime

I know, I know, I should have gotten to The Interrupters sooner. But I do whatever Ta-Nehisi tells me, and so I finally sat down to watch it yesterday. While the documentary, about anti-violence advocates in Chicago who work to deescalate situations that could lead to violence and crime, on the surface of it has very little in common with Appropriate Adult, the British film about serial killer Fred West and Janet Leach, the social worker trainee assigned to make sure West understood what was going on during interrogations to cut down on the chance of an appeal. But taken together, they’re a powerful indictment of the poverty of our popular entertainment’s approach to telling stories about crime and violence.

The Law & Order franchise’s formula of voiceovers is the clearest condensation of this approach. It’s””In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.” Or “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” Or “In New York City’s war on crime, the worst criminal offenders are pursued by the detectives of the Major Case Squad. These are their stories.”

In all three cases, and in many other crime-solving shows, the point is clear. Crime in our culture is about the people who arrest and prosecute criminals. Criminals exist as obstacles for those people to foil, problems for them to solve, people for them to break. Victims exist to provide meaning to that process. People who seek to prevent crime, or to heal victims of the trauma from it are largely incidental—when we see psychologists on television, they’re largely present to help detectives and prosecutors assess criminals or obtain convictions, or to help make prosecutors and detectives more effective and functional. There’s no question that crime affect the people who investigate them, and that case investigation is a neat package for television storytelling. But officers of the law are not the only people affected by crimes. And arrests and trials aren’t the only ways to tell stories.

The Interrupters is a phenomenal movie, and lots of people have laid out why, but I want to discuss it here as an example of how to tell crime stories with different people at the center of the frame, and through different processes. The movie, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is about violence interrupters in Chicago, people who work directly with people who are at risk of committing crimes to de-escalate both short-term and long-term situations that could lead to violence, acting on the presumption that violence is a public health risk that can be combatted by disrupting cycles of behavior. “The story about sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you? Words can get you killed,” Says Ameena Matthews, the daughter of Jeff Fort, an influential Chicago gang member who herself was involved in gang activity until she was shot. She’s since converted to Islam, and works to disrupt conflicts, whether she’s wading into an impending fight; confronting gang members who are hanging out with a much younger child and putting him at risk and telling them “This is unacceptable for me to be holding this young man’s obituary. Schools, church’s, your mama’s house…those are safe zones”; helping arrange a burial for Derrion Albert, an honor student who was beaten to death in a case that drew national attention; or taking a young woman whose mother is an addict on a carousel ride for the first time.

All of these scenes are gripping, as are the scenes of Cobe Williams taking a young man to apologize to the barbershop employees he held up, both of them listening to tearful explanations of how the robbery shattered their lives; or Eddie Bocanegra doing as many good deeds as possible every year on the anniversary of a murder he committed at 17. And they don’t require the presence of a detective, or an active gang leader, or a baroque criminal of any level a la The Wire to generate that drama. Mediation has a sort of squishy aura when compared to police work, and shows like USA Network’s Fairly Legal have given the impression that it’s the kind of thing you can do while looking hot in Louboutins. But marching into a potential beating is serious working that requires tremendous courage. A show based on the Violence Interrupters’ work wouldn’t have to generate a jot of artificial tension or baroque crime to be tremendously gripping, and it would give us a much more meaningful look at the roots and impact of violence than shows about cops who dip into communities and families only when a crisis has already happened.

Appropriate Adult is less of a departure from the standard police procedural (and it’s a dramatization of a real case). Janet (Emily Watson), the main character, is a trainee social worker who’s been certified to act as an appropriate adult, a term in the British legal system for a parent or social worker who needs to be present during the interrogation of a vulnerable person who’s been arrested. She’s called in for her first case, which turns out to be that of serial killer Fred West (an amazing Dominic West) and put in an impossible position: she’s supposed to be responsible for making sure he understands the proceedings and is under pressure from the police to get him to give up valuable information because of her connection to him, but she’s increasingly horrified by his crimes. She’s asked to be sympathetic, condemned when she gets emotionally involved in the case, and excoriated when she collaborates with a journalist who manipulates that sympathy. It may be the same system that we’re used to, but it’s seen through drastically different eyes that render it new, and less neatly just.

The standard crime-arrest-trial narrative may be comforting, but that doesn’t mean it’s complete. In this, as with all things, diversity helps us get closer to the truth in all its complexity. And it would make for vastly more varied, richer storytelling.