Name a politically-charged issue, and the Sanford family has endured it all. Yet somehow, the charming family managed to emerge stronger and even more stoic than ever before in Davy Rothbart’s 20-years-in-the-making documentary, ‘17 Blocks’, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
17 Blocks was given its title in reference to the distance between the U.S. Capital and the rough Washington D.C. neighborhood the Sanfords resided in. Although the distance is not far, the two are practically parallel universes.
The documentary, which came together initially on accident, began when director Davy Rothbart met two sweet kids on a public basketball court in 1999. Smurf and Emmanuel Sanford, fifteen and nine years old at the time, became good friends with Rothbart. When young Emmanuel took interest in Rothbart’s filmmaking pursuits, Rothbart lent him his video camera and Emmanuel went to town on recording his brother, sister Denice, and mother Cheryl over a variety of years.
The old, raw footage gives audiences direct insight into the tight-knit family dealing with the harsh realities of their impoverished, drug-using and violent neighborhood. The sweetness of the family paints a familiar portrait of the struggle many African-American families living in an urban disaster-zone face, and the cycle many find themselves in that only a few are able to stray away from.
Emmanuel, clear from a young age and into his late teenage years, made it very clear that he had no interest in partaking in this violent, unforgiving cycle. The family lost their father to violence at an early age, and Cheryl, haunted by a traumatizing past, turned to drugs, along with her live-in boyfriend Joe. But Emmanuel, a charming and adorable young introvert, decided that he wanted to focus on graduating with impressive grades, marrying his girlfriend, Carmen, and fulfilling his dreams to become a firefighter.
But Emmanuel’s brother, Smurf, couldn’t see such a future for himself at the time. Instead, he found himself wanting to dropout of school and focus on dealing drugs in order to keep up with his finances, and eventually, to provide for his newborns.
Living under the same roof as their sister Denice, tragedy struck the family when a robbery turned murder took the life of one of the family members, sending the some of the remaining relatives in a downward spiral. After years of processing their grief and finding themselves at an odds with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, the Sanfords manage to break their own cycle and exemplify a hopeful future for families in poor neighborhoods that struggle to escape drug abuse and gun violence. This positivity and optimistic chapter in the Sanford’s story is furthered as we’re introduced to 9-year-old Justin, who similar to his uncle Emmanuel, has a spark for creativity and learning in his glistening, sweet eyes.
This heartbreaking, yet awe-inspiring story left me astonished that so much could happen to one family. At times throughout, I kept having to look back at the program to remind myself that this was a documentary and not a narrative film. 17 Blocks deals wraps in a much-needed conversation around gun-violence, drug abuse, the need for mental health services and therapy to be normalized and more accessible for tough neighborhoods, sexual assault, and the current climate of the criminal justice system.
The film leaves us with a hair-raising credit roll of homicide victims that passed away due to gun-violence from the last decade. The visual appeared to be more than enough to surpass the plethora names found on some war memorial sights and serves as a reminder that the United States’ internal war is more common and deadly than one might initially believe.