17 blocks behind the capital building in Washington D.C., the Sanford-Durant family lives in relative poverty on a “sleepy” avenue. The film opens with Cheryl, the matriarch of this tight unit, visiting her former home behind the capital building. The current white tenant welcomes her in, and in her reminiscing she breaks down to cry at her misbegotten fortune. Director Davy Rothbart‘s documentary 17 Blocks, filmed over the course of 20 years, retraces Cheryl and her family’s regression from their happy existence to their near-traumatic ruin.
Rothbart’s project began in 1999, initially, by filming the then 9-year old Emmanuel. The director, having just moved to the neighborhood, had a camcorder and nothing much. In fact, much of the film’s early portions are handled by members of Emmanuel’s family, a unit that includes his mother Cheryl, his brother Smurf, and his sister Denice.
While the Sanford-Durant household seems idyllic, a myriad of issues exists. For one, Cheryl is a drug addict; Smurf spends his days living “the life” (which colloquially means selling drugs and gangbanging); Denice stays at home and cooks, while Emmanuel (with dreams of becoming a firefighter) exists as the shining emblem of his family.
Rothbart’s film follows these siblings and their mother throughout the intervening years as they descend deeper-and-deeper into the vices surrounding them, until they’re confronted with a horrific tragedy. The second half of the film then examines their recovery from said event, and what moving on means when it seems impossible to do anything but.
The Sanford-Durant family serves as a case study of environmental factors leading to near-disastrous results and changed futures. Kicking a drug habit is never easy, but especially when the market exists around you. When older children in the neighborhood sell drugs or gangbang, remaining from that life becomes as Herculean as slaying the nine-headed hyrdra that is a drug addiction. And when said battles amongst dealers spin out of control, death of a loved one is always less than 17 blocks away.
Rothbart’s documentary relies on an incredible sense of intimacy, though the film’s intimacy does leave room for some moral questioning. One such moment arrives when the camera vicariously watches Smurf and his friend Anthony viciously beat a man who owes them money, after they hunt him down in the streets . The drubbing we witness on camera arrives with an uneasy sense of exploitation, even though the events are true. This moment, along with Cheryl’s consistent drugged-out behavior on camera (another instance that brings a disturbing voyeurism), exemplify this family’s devolving existence.
In fact, not only does the family’s circumstances change, the style of filming becomes modified too. Rothbart grows as a filmmaker, initially employing a rough guerrilla brand of filmmaking, then transitioning to cleaner compositions and framings later in life. The technology he handles to capture the family’s day-to-day life also improves, moving from VHS to digital.
However, even with his revamped techniques and equipment, 17 Blocks actually loses an indefinable charm and emotion as it progresses. Maybe the lo-fi VHS format attaches the right type of nostalgia or maybe we’re reeling and steeling ourselves as much as the family after said tragedy occurs, but the film’s second half doesn’t offer the same empathetic connection as its beginning suggests.
While 17 Blocks puts human faces to a slew of ongoing problems for many urban Blacks, the film devastatingly loses its most endearing figure. Rothbart’s film becomes somewhat rudderless, like the family, for the intervening period until the final 10 minutes of the documentary. Rothbart’s 17 Blocks finds its most stimulating and limpid calling as a memorializing of this family’s most difficult lesson: growth through healing.