In “17 Blocks,” Cheryl Sanford, matriarch of a low-income African American household in southeast Washington, D.C., talks wistfully of a “parallel universe” where she and her family enjoy cookouts, vacations and gift-filled Christmas mornings. This melancholy confession comes moments after a closeup of her casually snorting cocaine. It’s a heartbreaking scene in a devastating film that stays entirely focused on a single family’s struggle to overcome the intractable problems of drug addiction and gun violence that have destroyed the future, and often claimed the lives, of too many African Americans in poor communities.
Though it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2019 and was subsequently slated for distribution by MTV Documentary Films last fall, Davy Rothbart’s intimate and uncompromising documentary was then held back for 2020. The subsequent coronavirus outbreak put those plans in limbo once again, with theatrical and broadcast release still in flux. In the interim, “17 Blocks” has taken on fresh relevance amid the #BlackLivesMatter protests, speaking even more directly to this moment and an America convulsing in protest over racial inequality.
In 1999, Rothbart (more recently a contributor to public radio’s “This American Life”) met 9-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his teenage brother Smurf during a pickup basketball game. Rothbart befriended the pair and provided them with a video camera to film their everyday lives. Soon other family members, including the boys’ teenage sister, Denice, were joining in. They would chronicle their existence, on and off, good and bad, for the next 20 years. The resulting 1,000 hours of footage was entrusted to editor Jennifer Tiexiera who found the beating, sometimes bleeding, heart of the Sanford family’s story. She traces each major character’s arc as cleanly as possible considering the years-long gaps in the tale, and she doesn’t skimp on the joyful moments that speak to the family’s closeness and resiliency.
It’s impossible not to be immediately taken by Emmanuel, an adorable kid who, as a pre-teen, already understands that “drugs is bad for you, make you drop out and make you a failure.” Cheryl, Emmanuel’s mother, attended private school and an elite junior high, which she divulges right before hitting up her elderly father for money, an early indicator that her promising start fell victim to the harsh realities of violence and drug abuse. Cheryl also grew up with two parents, a luxury not afforded Emmanuel and his siblings, whose father died before shooting began. One of her subsequent boyfriends, Joe, admits he still drinks and takes drugs, and during one screaming match Cheryl threatens him with a knife. But he does express a genuine desire to be a positive force in her life, and Cheryl’s acceptance of Joe makes her future hardships even more agonizing to witness.
As the years pass and grainy camcorder footage gives way to widescreen digital video, Rothbart toggles between family crises and slivers of normalcy. But his most effective choice may be to steer clear of political discussions, even if the results of governmental negligence fill every frame. The doc’s most overt political act is its title. The titular 17 blocks represent the distance between the Sanford home and a U.S. Capitol building disinterested in the issues ravaging poor African American neighborhoods and the residents who feel disconnected from, if not outright abandoned by, their government.
Rothbart casts no judgment upon the family, which is remarkable considering their close, decades-long friendship. The camera merely serves as a dispassionate chronicler of painfully raw moments including Smurf, dealing drugs, beating up a man in the street or just catatonic in a drugged-out stupor on the couch. We’re not even spared the fresh blood stains on the wall after the shocking death upon which the movie pivots, and that allows Rothbart to layer in notions of guilt, regret and forgiveness.
Indeed, more than just a singular achievement in documentary filmmaking, “17 Blocks” is the result of the Sanford family’s profound act of bravery. Willfully serving up their pain so we may better understand the African American experience, they ask us to put a human face on issues that are so often packaged for use as political wedges and exploited for ratings on cable news.
Without trafficking in pity or emotional manipulation, Rothbart coaxes audiences’ investment in the family’s fortunes, as they exult in Emmanuel’s college-bound future and fret over whether Smurf can avoid prison. The entire family is engaged in a multi-generational struggle they were fated to inherit. Admitting her part, Cheryl talks of starting a “chain reaction” that “put things in motion that should not have been.” While that might be true, “17 Blocks” proves that the Sanford family, and by extension all such families, should not be defined by the tragedies they’ve suffered. They should be defined by their fight to overcome them.