17 Blocks is a harrowing documentary that depicts the lives of the Sanfords, an African-American family that lives just 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol but for whom the wealthy power-center of American politics might as well be on another planet. Using home-video footage shot by the youngest son, Emmanuel, director Davy Rothbart was able to piece together a chronicle of the Sanfords’ lives from 1999 to 2018 as the family experiences triumph and tragedy in the economic shadow of our country’s heart.
When we meet the family, matriarch Cheryl is a single mom to her three children, Smurf (15), Emmanuel (9) and Denice (10). Cheryl and her live-in boyfriend are both drug addicts. “I used to dream of being an actress,” Cheryl tells us, not in a way that mourns a lost life of glamour but rather as an anecdote the reflects the middle-class upbringing she left behind. Smurf has already left school and started a descent into dealing drugs. Emmanuel is the videographer, using equipment loaned to him to take amateur home videos of his family around the house. The footage is rough and occasionally requires subtitles to make out conversations.
Using the home-video footage to tell the story creates natural limitations on the material Rothbart can use, so the time jumps happen relatively frequently but never in a confusing manner thanks to editor Jennifer Tiexiera, who is also credited with the screenplay. We quickly come to see both the three children and Cheryl nine years later. Emmanuel is now a promising student looking to be a firefighter; Smurf is dealing drugs; Denice has two children and is working while caring for them. The Sanfords have moved. The sudden shifts in time throughout the film feel part and parcel with what the family members express about their lived experience, as the scenery changes but struggles with drugs, poverty, and finding their futures persist.
At about the halfway point of 17 Blocks, an unthinkable but all-too-common tragedy occurs, turning the story on its head. Trigger warning: There is blood, trauma and graphic depictions of drug use throughout the film. Much of 17 Blocks is deeply upsetting despite its ultimate turn toward a much more uplifting conclusion. Thanks to the involvement of the Sanford family in its creation, the film never feels voyeuristic, only intimate and true. It’s a story that touches on many larger social issues but maintains a a power all its own simply by sharing the experience of a family growing up in their circumstances. That said: when the credits roll and present a silent accounting of gun violence victims in Washington D.C., the names are seemingly never-ending, and 17 Blocks solidifies itself as a movie of tremendous scope both great and small. There’s a lot on its mind, and it’s all masterfully conveyed.
17 Blocks is a Documentary Finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
5:15 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 15 – DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
7:20 p.m., Friday, Oct. 18 – AMC Castleton Square
2:50 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 19 – AMC Castleton Square
2:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 20 – DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields