'17 Blocks': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Davy Rothbart
Raw and immediate.

Davy Rothbart's documentary chronicles the difficult lives of a Washington, D.C., family over two decades.

The ironic title of Davy Rothbart's 17 Blocks refers to the distance between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where the family at its center resides. It's not a long distance geographically, but it might as well be worlds away, judging by the harsh realities of the daily lives so powerfully chronicled in the documentary, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The film came about by happenstance, as a result of a chance meeting between its director-producer Davy Rothbart (a frequent contributor to This American Life) and two kids he met at a public basketball court in 1999. Fifteen-year-old Smurf Sanford and his 9-year-old brother Emmanuel lived in the neighborhood, and over time Rothbart became friends with them as well as their mother Cheryl and sister Denice. When Emmanuel expressed interest in becoming a filmmaker, Rothbart periodically lent him a video camera. The little boy began shooting home movies, a project that continued on and off among the family members for the next 20 years.

The resulting footage, as assembled by Rothbart and his collaborators, forms an intense portrait of a loving family dealing with a harsh life in their neighborhood marked by poverty, drugs and violence, among many other problems. Along the way, there are joys and heartbreak as the Sanfords prove not immune to the struggles of so many African-American families living in urban blight.

The kids lost their father to violence at an early age, and both their mother Cheryl and her live-in boyfriend Joe are drug abusers. Cheryl says that when she was young, she dreamed of being a movie star. "Unfortunately, life had other plans for me," she says wryly.

There are many heartwarming moments over the years, including scenes of family meals, dancing, playing around and shooting fireworks. Unfortunately, the good times are overshadowed by episodes of violence, including one in which we see a teenager being brutally beaten on the street. Although Emmanuel turns out to be a good student, graduating high school and being accepted for a training program for firefighting, Smurf resorts to dealing drugs and frequently winds up in trouble. Both he and Cheryl have children of their own while still very young themselves, which only adds to the family's financial pressures.

Tragedy of a horrific kind eventually strikes the Sanfords, making the film's final section deeply harrowing in a way that Rothbart would never have wanted. By the time it occurs, we've come to know the family so well that the events have an impact that feels almost personal. Thankfully, there are positive developments for several of them as well, providing an element of much-needed hopefulness. That optimism is furthered when we're introduced to Justin, Emmanuel's 9-year-old nephew, who seems very much like his uncle in his love of learning and sweet demeanor.     

Considering that it was filmed in bits and pieces over two decades, it's not surprising that 17 Blocks is disjointed in its storytelling, nor that its technical elements are ragged (subtitles are frequently employed due to poor sound quality). But it nonetheless packs a potent emotional punch. Before the credits roll, there's an onscreen graphic dedicating the film to the Washington, D.C., homicide victims of roughly the last decade. We then see all of their names, presented in very tiny type. It's a list that heartbreakingly seems to go on forever.

Cast: Cheryl Sanford, Emmanuel Durant, Jr., Akil "Smurf" Sanford, Denice Sanford-Durant, Justin Sanford, Carmen Payne
Director: Davy Rothbart
Screenwriter-editor: Jennifer Tiexiera
Producers: Alex Turtletaub, Michael B. Clark, Marc Turtletaub, Rachel Dengiz, Davy Rothbart
Executive producers: Cheryl Sanford, Jennifer Tiexiera
Director of photography: Zachary Shields

Composer: Nick Urata
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

96 minutes