Combustible Celluloid
With: Emmanuel Durant Jr., Akil 'Smurf' Sanford, Cheryl Sanford, Denice Sanford-Durant, Justin Sanford
Written by: Davy Rothbart, Jennifer Tiexiera
Directed by: Davy Rothbart
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 02/19/2021

17 Blocks (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Capitol Letters

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The incredible, miraculous, essential documentary 17 Blocks is truly difficult and heartbreaking to watch but, also, it's an act of fearlessness, a gesture of defiance, and a declaration of hope, all at once. (It can be viewed through the Roxie's virtual cinema.)

17 Blocks consists of a mix of home video footage and professional documentary footage. In 1999, in Washington D.C., filmmaker Davy Rothbart befriended 9 year-old Emmanuel and 15 year-old Smurf in a pick-up basketball game. He gave Emmanuel his video camera, and the boy began filming himself and his family.

We meet their mother, Cheryl Sanford, whose dreams of a better life have clearly not come true, as she is reduced to borrowing money from her aged parents (their life savings). As time passes, Emmanuel, who refuses to touch drugs, seems as if he's headed for a brighter future, while Smurf sinks into a life of selling drugs. When tragedy strikes in 2009, Rothbart returns to the family and, at the request of Cheryl Sanford, begins filming anew, and continuing for another decade, as more children and grandchildren come along, apartments are changed, and the family continues to struggle and survive.

Without going outside the family circle, the finished film — assembled from some 1000 hours of footage — captures systemic racism at its core, showing how much harder Black people must struggle just to stay afloat. The title alone is a shocker; it's the distance from the Sanford home to the Capitol Building, and it's difficult to fathom a bolder line drawn between the America we aspire to be and the America we actually are.

17 Blocks is searingly honest, showing the effect of drugs on the family, and depicting such mind-blowing details as a shop whose entire purpose is to create memorial t-shirts for the many people killed in the neighborhood. But the movie also shows how powerful love and hope are, and how the family keeps keeping on. It may be a difficult watch, but it's an essential emotional awakening.

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