COURTESY OF DAVY ROTHBART
You can’t take your eyes off 17 Blocks for even a second. The raw, home video footage documentary offers an intimate view into the lives of the Sanford-Durants, a Black family struggling to find joy and stability in Southeast Washington D.C.
So many of the documentaries we watch now are slick mash-ups of stylized reenactments and moody voiceovers, assuring us that history can be mapped neatly into an orderly sequence. 17 Blocks makes no such tidy promises. Instead, gritty, endearing moments rush in: A pair of brothers, 14-year-old Smurf and nine-year-old Emmanuel, play basketball in a neighborhood park. A friend helps Emmanuel put a caucasian skin tone bandage over a scrape. Their mother, Cheryl, points at an old photo of herself and says “Isn’t that a pretty girl right there?”
“That’s you!” Emmanuel shouts.
“That’s not me!” Cheryl says.
Emmy-award-winning director Davy Rothbart stitched these moments together, alternating between powerful portraits of poverty and warm moments of the family persevering, and cheering one another on. But, like I said, if you look away for a moment you’re bound to miss some important detail to the puzzle that is this family’s history. What happened to them? Well, a lot of things happened to them.
Many will recognize Rothbart as a co-creator of Found Magazine. In 1999, when the documentary begins, Rothbart lived next door to the Sanford-Durants. As he got to know them, Emmanuel expressed an interest in filmmaking, so Rothbart loaned him a camera and started showing him how to work it.
The same artistic impulses that inspired Rothbart to put anonymous love notes and other mysterious ephemera into a magazine are also present in 17 Blocks. His magazine’s hyper zoomed-in focus spoke to the human condition—how eccentric we are, how similar we all are. 17 Blocks is a different kind of ephemera. Instead of giving a brief glance into an anonymous stranger’s personal life, the film represents a deeply personal artifact—98 minutes edited down from over 1,000 hours—that puts you in the room while family members struggle with substance abuse, neighborhood violence, and despair.
The film’s intimacy feels transgressive at times. You will see the Sanford-Durants in deeply personal and emotional states that might make you feel like an intruder. But they want you to see it, and Rothbart counts them as collaborators, in addition to subjects. This is especially true of the family matriarch Cheryl, who is arguably the film’s main focus. At a moment of the family’s greatest tragedy, she called Rothbart and asked him to help record the aftermath.
“So many people are killed by guns in our neighborhood,” Cheryl says in the film’s press materials, “but none have had their entire lives documented as thoroughly as my family.”
By the end of the film, you’ll have an understanding of the way intergenerational trauma moves through a household—even as you also witness the Sisyphean effort of parents not to pass on that pain. There are some images in 17 Blocks that are hard to get out of your mind. But if you watched a show like The Wire and lauded its portrayal of inner city violence, if you think you’re entitled to any opinion about blighted city violence, you should watch 17 Blocks.
Fall in love with the Sanford-Durants. Watch them fall, rally, and persevere. They are strong. They are an American family, and this is what the past 20 years were like for them—living just 17 blocks from the US Capitol Building. The Sanford-Durants are showing their history, in the hopes that their vulnerability can lead to change. Don’t look away.
17 Blocks streams at SIFF Cinema.