17 Blocks: An Intimate Look At The Cycles Of Black Poverty And Pain

An intimate portrait of black trauma and triumph premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

17 Blocks, a 2019 Tribeca Film Festival award winner for Best Editing in a Documentary, is a deep look into the lives of the Sanford Durant family of Washington DC.

The film’s existence occurred purely by happenstance when director Davy Rothbart came across a 15-year-old named Smurf and his precocious 9-year-old brother Emmanuel on a basketball court in 1999.

The film’s title gets its name from the neighborhood in which the family lives, which is 17 blocks from the Capitol.

The nightly news is filled with the cold reckoning that black lives are being extinguished at a devastating rate in Washington D.C.

In the media, the cyclical manner that death visits poor, black households is broken down into flickers of statistics and sterilized numbers.

But when young Emmanuel brought home Rothbart’s camera, he took us into a world that touched a familiar place not yet viewed on film.

Cheryl, the matriarch of the family, was born into a middle class black family with big dreams. But repressed memories of a deeply painful circumstance led her down a lifetime of casual drug abuse and alcohol to numb the pain, which in turn leads to other costly decisions and gut-wrenching consequences.

Young Emmanuel is clearly seen as the brother with the most potential between he and Smurf, who would eventually become a small-time drug dealer as a lifestyle choice that would haunt him throughout the arc of the 20 years over which 17 Blocks is shot.

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Davy Rothbart’s latest documentary @17BlocksFilm premiered at @Tribeca Film Fest this past week to much acclaim. He stopped by Filmwax Radio to talk about the 20 years it took him & the Sanford story to get there! https://t.co/kU4XkumzIG @DavyRothbart @FOUNDmag #Tribeca2019

Several cultural components were clear very early on. Poverty had made Emmanuel hyper aware of the lack that existed within his life. I couldn’t help feel endeared to him. He was curious, clever and hopeful in all those warm and fuzzy ways little black boys exhibit early on.

But it isn’t long before we realize the total sum of the odds young Emmanuel faces when we see that his father, Emmanuel Sr, was murdered when he was very young.

It is clear that the arc of his life would manifest in a cyclical manner along the curve of the life of his mother or father. Cheryl partly blames herself for the life Smurf leads, but all are hopeful for the compassionate and loving Emmanuel’s potential.

He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, aspires to be a firefighter and marry his college educated high school sweetheart. A black American dream.

The cycles of drug abuse, violence and death were ever present for Emmanuel and Smurf, as single parenthood and poverty were for their sister Deniece.

Despite all things, life must go on. And their are many deeply heart-warming triumphs throughout the film for the family. But the sharp suddenness of unsuspected tragedy permeates much of it.

17 Blocks is shot in a series of disjointed, poorly-shot video segments and honest personal reflections to form a candid and deeply intimate movie that shines a glaring light on the misunderstood phenomenon of multi-generational black poverty, drug abuse and violence.

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