Review: 17 Blocks Follows One Family Over Decades of Struggle, Tragedy and Healing

A multigenerational exercise in cinema verité, 17 Blocks proves to be a surprisingly emotional 20-year journey through the lives of a family living in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Directed by Davy Rothbart (Medora) but filmed largely by its own subjects, the film follows the Sanford family in their effort to carve out a life for themselves amidst the poverty, gun violence, drug dealing and more that plague their neighborhood. The film follows them for so long that it uniquely chronicles not just a phase in their lives, including their challenges and struggles, but entire generations. Its focus on a single family ultimately serves as a vehicle to exploring the otherwise unobservable but omnipresent influences of capitalism, gentrification and the justice system.

17 Blocks

Image courtesy of Music Box Theatre

Rothbart, who created and still publishes Found Magazine, first met two of the Sanford children, Emmanuel and his older brother Smurt, during a pick-up basketball game in 1999 when Emmanmuel was just 9 years old. Striking up a friendship, eventually he gave them a camcorder and sent them home to capture whatever they’d like of their lives. All this is shared in a short prologue to the film, and it gives the appropriate amount of context as we meet the boys’ mother, Cheryl. She’s older and appears feeble on her feet, and when we first meet her, she’s knocking on the door of the house where she raised Smurf, Emmanuel and their sister Denice. A younger, white man opens the door and, after hearing that it’s the house where she grew up, he invites her in. All of it is a touching moment, but it’s not until we’ve traveled back in time to get to know Cheryl, her children and their children, that we realize just how significant it is.

With editor Jennifer Tiexiera, Rothbart had over 1,000 hours of footage to shape into a 96-minute feature film, and they do an admirable job of distilling the family’s many narratives into something compelling. Their father was killed by gun violence before filming began, so Cheryl raises her children to the best of her ability. She and her live-in boyfriend (early on, at least) Joe are both abusing drugs, and though he says he wants to be a father figure to the children, scenes of their screaming matches might prove triggering to anyone who can recall hiding in their room the way Emmanuel does when parents fight. Joe is eventually out of the picture, and the children grow into teens; without any other viable options, Smurf begins dealing drugs to make a buck. Meanwhile, Emmanuel has grown into a charming young man who’s in love with a sweet neighborhood girl and on track to head to college after graduation. In the middle of it all, tragedy strikes, an event that will forever change both the family’s trajectory as well as their internal dynamic. These scenes are all the more heart-wrenching as Rothbart’s long-standing connection with the family grants him incredible access to some of their most difficult moments.

By simply observing their lives over the course of decades—and without imparting any extraneous editorial insights—Rothbart has crafted a documentary that is part family photo album, part time capsule. One need only overlay their own awareness of the state of the country in the decades just before and after the millennium to understand all the forces at play in shaping the paths for Cheryl, her children and her grandchildren. Theirs is a story that seems all too familiar, perhaps making the effort of making a film seem unnecessary. But in capturing their experiences, the film also crystalizes similar stories repeated over and over again in homes throughout D.C. (and the country), ensuring they’re more than just headlines read in passing or worse, ignored all together.

The Sandford home is again filled with children by the late 2010s, as Denice and Smurf each have their own, making Cheryl (who still struggles with addiction) a grandmother. The camera is naturally drawn to Denice’s son Justin, a sweet and rambunctious 9-year-old, and it’s no accident that he’s the same age his uncle was when we first met him. In this full-circle third act, 17 Blocks reaches its most poignant expression as a family that’s seen more than its fair share of struggles (those thrust upon them and those a result of poor decisions) finally begins to heal itself. In a court appearance after being caught with drugs during a traffic stop, Smurf articulates a simple but universal sentiment about his commitment to improving his situation: now in his 30s, he just doesn’t want to live that way any more. Even Cheryl turns a corner in her battle with her own demons. Though the Sanfords will always have the scars of their past traumas, a film like 17 Blocks proves that time does indeed heal many wounds.

17 Blocks is now playing at Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema.

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