THE STORY – Using two decades of intimate home video, the story of the Sanford family, whose struggles with addiction and gun violence eventually lead to a journey of love, loss, and acceptance.
THE CAST – Emmanuel Durant Jr., Akil ‘Smurf’ Sanford & Cheryl Sanford
THE TEAM – Davy Rothbart (Director) & Jennifer Tiexiera (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
By Josh Parham
It can truly be an exhilarating experience when one is afforded the opportunity to get a revealing peek behind the curtain. The ability to be granted access to an intimate portrait of life that feels textured and detailed is always an intriguing proposition to accept. This is often what many documentaries are able to showcase, and it’s an appreciated element to the great films in this medium. It’s particularly fascinating to see that window into a world that takes place inside familiar borders but feels like an innovative capture of real people’s lives. That is what “17 Blocks” aims to provide, and it does so in a mostly captivating way.
The film documents a nearly twenty-year period that focuses on the Sanford family who live in a lower-income Washington, D.C. neighborhood that is blocks away from the U.S. Capitol. Beginning in 1999, nine-year-old Emmanuel picked up a home video camera and began documenting his home life. Eventually, more members of the family started doing the same, in large part through a collaboration with the film’s director Davy Rothbart. What’s produced is an unflinching look into the ravaging nature of addiction and gun violence that plagues so many communities, as well as the hard-fought battle to find redemption and solace in one’s life.
There’s a personal authenticity that flows throughout this piece, and it’s fitting since a great deal of this footage was captured by the members of this family themselves. It’s a time capsule of a specific domestic life that divulges both the heartache and misery along with the hope and joy. The footage itself can often be difficult to take in, particularly when its depictions of violence and drug use are cavalierly on display. Still, the story it conveys shows how trauma bleeds through generations and feeds into a perpetual cycle of guilt – and that is rather powerful. In many ways, it evokes another brilliant documentary on the subject of poverty-stricken communities reconciling with past ordeals: “Minding the Gap.” This is nowhere near as powerful, but it recalls similar themes in intriguing ways.
Where these two films really diverge is the methods by which these events are depicted, and how manipulated they can be viewed. Rothbart is an accomplished filmmaker in his own right and certainly takes great care to assemble this footage in a way that doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities this family has endured, but he also doesn’t seek to judge them. While that does seem genuine, it’s also notable how this story is being crafted by an outsider being given admittance into a world they haven’t personally inhabited. The complete absence of the filmmaker from the narrative disavows some of that aforementioned authenticity and occupies a realm of exploitation that can’t be ignored.
At the same time, one can’t help but be taken in by the many members of the Sanford clan as their personal journey delivers most of the film’s success. It’s a deeply sincere tale that highlights tragedy as well as redemption. Their story doesn’t shy away from the struggles their community faces, and what’s presented is how one copes with these surroundings as best as possible. Whether it’s the earnest charms of Emmanuel, the harsh revelations provided by his mother, the guilt which influences his brother’s decisions, or the wide scope of various members of this group, they are an abundant source of engaging perspectives that justify this exploration. Having their voices be heard feels cathartic to witness.
Much of what “17 Bocks” attempts to show is a carefully detailed depiction of a family in crisis, but looks deep within themselves to strive toward survival. Its results are accomplished, if somewhat mixed. There’s no doubt that there’s power in the events that are shown, and the intimacy that is granted places one firmly in these perspectives. The emotions presented feel real and the documentation more layered and compelling. It’s unfortunate that the juxtaposition of a filmmaker removed from the subjects themselves makes the entire presentation feel more calculated. Much of the credibility to tell a story free of judgment is somewhat lost because of that. At the same time, the ultimate results are an impactful look into an American community that is important to showcase.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An intimate and moving portrait of a family dealing with years of grief and trauma. It’s a fascinating time capsule that showcases how cycles of abuse perpetuate through generations and the struggle to strive for hope and redemption.
THE BAD – The filmmaking comes from an outsider’s perspective and feels exploitative at times.