The documentary 17 Blocks, from director and FOUND Magazine creator Davy Rothbart, was filmed over the course of two decades, beginning at the turn of the millennium. The movie follows the Sanford-Durants, a family by whom Rothbart was “adopted,” as the mother puts it, living in a southeast D.C. neighborhood situated just 17 blocks from the White House. The timescale of the movie recalls Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the 2014 film featuring the same actors (including the director’s own daughter), shot over the course of 12 years. But where Boyhood followed an upper-middle-class white boy in Texas, Rothbart’s documentary centers on a working-class Black family scraping by in an over-policed, under-resourced area of the capital, whose proximity to the most powerful politicians in the country has done little to alleviate the simultaneous and interconnected tolls of poverty, the carceral state, and gun violence.
The story began in 1999, when 9-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his 15-year-old brother Smurf met Rothbart in a pick-up basketball game near their home. Rothbart, a young filmmaker, had just moved to the area—far from his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan—and didn’t know many people. He hit it off with the boys, who later invited him to meet their family: their 12-year-old sister, Denise, and their mother, Cheryl Sanford. At the time, Emmanuel buzzed with a nerdy, curious energy—his favorite subjects in school were, basically, all of them—and Rothbart’s filmmaking work piqued his interest. Over time, the director taught Emmanuel to use his small camcorder, and let him bring it home, where he and his siblings started to film each other and interview their mother about her life.
The viewer learns that Cheryl grew up across town in a middle-class area with government-worker parents, but a violent childhood trauma—a group of boys lured her from a party to rape her—and single motherhood pushed her into dire financial straits and addiction; that Smurf has gotten involved in drug dealing and had some early run-ins with the law; and that Cheryl’s boyfriend, Joe, devoted himself to her and the kids. “What’s my favorite thing?” Joe asks a shaky camera, “It’s called Cheryl.” Their early footage has an appealingly lo-fi, quasi-accidental charm; the clumsy excitement of childhood discovery is literally caught on tape. In one of the first scenes, Emmanuel captures himself finding the camcorder’s filter settings, giggling as he flips between sepia, black-and-white, and night-vision.
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