April 27, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Davy Rothbart
World premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.
It might be easy to write off “17 Blocks” as just another movie that shows black people struggling in a ghetto neighborhood plagued by drugs and crime. The struggle has been depicted in too many movies and TV shows to count, and it can become a tiresome stereotype, especially when law-abiding, middle-class black families are under-represented on screen—and when these role-model black families are portrayed on screen, it’s usually in the context of a comedy. But the documentary “17 Blocks,” which was filmed in the span of nearly 20 years, beginning in 1999, is so deeply personal and emotionally moving that it doesn’t feel like blaxploitation.
“17 Blocks” director Davy Rothbart (who happens to be white) got the idea for the movie after seeing a 9-year-old black boy named Emmanuel Sanford-Durant using a home-video camera to film himself and his family in their rough Washington, D.C., neighborhood that’s only 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol building. Rothbart met and befriended Emmanuel and his older brother Smurf while playing basketball near the brothers’ apartment. The filmmaker, who never lived in the neighborhood, became close to the Sanford-Durant family and began documenting their lives over the years. The result is this movie.
Much of the early footage in “17 Blocks” was filmed by Emmanuel, a bright and thoughtful child who later had goals to become a firefighter. He’s almost the polar opposite of Smurf (who is six years older than Emmanuel), a drug dealer and addict with multiple arrests related to his criminal lifestyle. Middle child Denice (who is three years older than Emmanuel) doesn’t lead a life of crime, but she becomes a teenage mother and school dropout, which slows down her career prospects. As Denice becomes an adult, she has aspirations to become a security guard.
Meanwhile, the kids’ mother, Cheryl, spends many years raising them as a single parent (her marital status over the years remains a murky mystery in the film), but she struggles with an addiction to cocaine that leaves her children often feeling emotionally abandoned and resentful. The father or fathers of Cheryl’s three kids are not in the movie, and there’s no indication that the kids were raised by their father(s). It’s revealed in the movie that Cheryl came from a solid middle-class home where she was raised by her two parents and once aspired to be an actress. But her cocaine addiction often hampered her ability to be a responsible parent. It’s hinted in the movie that Cheryl’s parents sometimes had to help raise her children when she was in the throes of addiction.
Emmanuel is the family’s “golden child,” the one with the most potential and talent to become a success. He’s the only one of Cheryl’s children to graduate from high school. (Unfortunately, due to her addiction, Cheryl missed Emmanuel’s high-school graduation ceremony, which is one of the many regrets that she expresses in the film.) Emmanuel has a bright future ahead of him after he graduates from high school, and he’s looking forward to begin training as a firefighter. Unlike his siblings, who became parents as teenagers, and have children from broken relationships, Emmanuel hasn’t become a teen father. He’s in a solid and loving relationship with a neighborhood girl named Carmen Payne, who also has career goals, and they eventually plan to marry.
But a tragedy changes the Sanford-Durant family forever, and the second half of the movie documents how they cope with that tragedy. “17 Blocks” will not be an easy film to watch for many people because it might trigger feelings of sadness and/or anger for all the families who’ve experienced similar tragedies—regardless of race or socioeconomic status. “17 Blocks” is a wake-up call that might also inspire people to reach out to those in their communities who are hurting. And it’s also a reminder that it’s never too late to learn from our mistakes, and make our lives better for ourselves and other people.
UPDATE: MTV Documentary Films will release “17 Blocks” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on February 19, 2021.