In Washington, D.C. the beautiful monuments and treasured capitol building are icons Americans accept with reverence to appreciate their history. Also in an area that encompasses 17 blocks in the shadow of the capital there is a slaughter going on which is shameful and hidden.
The documentary film 17 Blocks by filmmaker/journalist Davy Rothbart with screenplay and editing by Jennifer Tiexiera, who won a Tribeca Award for Best Editing, exposes one of the most violent areas and gives us pause to ask why must gun violence continue, even in the very capital whose politicians refuse to deal with it because of money and power? We also ask, what is the value of human life to individuals whose lives have apparently been thrown away by a society and culture that doesn’t care?
Rothbart’s powerful and poignant film exposes the raw underbelly and extremes of life and death, that exist for black Americans who abide in the shadows of racism, poverty, drug addiction and the dwindling hope that their lives will ever get better in the capital of a ountry whose history has been plagued by war from its inception. In the chronicling of one family’s experience living in the 17 block radius, a picture unfolds that explains all we need to know about our country’s ethos in the hope that there can be improvement. If people see and understand, then they can change and help others change. It started with a filmmaker and someone who liked the idea of filming and from there, 17 Blocks was born.
The film begins with 9-year-old Emmanuel (the name means “God is with us,” and in the New Testament, Jesus Christ) using the camera in cinema verite style to capture the daily life of each member of the Sanford-Durant family.
Rothbart met Emmanuel who expressed an interest in being a filmmaker after he and his older brother Smurf become friendly with Rothbart. Eventually, the ball was set in motion for Emmanuel to chronicle snippets of family over a period of two decades. Emmanuel used Rothbart’s camera to shoot homely scenes, for example of his sister Denice preparing dinner, his mother getting ready to go out, as well as the family dynamic, their relationships and struggles. Various scenes express a rawness and poignancy that shows their love, concern, stress, anger and the full range of emotions that beset a family that is going through hard times, including the lack of finances or the education to start a successful career path.
Emmanuel introduces us to his mother Cheryl and other family members, Smurf, his brother who is six-years-older and Denice the oldest sister who has a job and attempts to take care of everyone. Over the years we watch their aging. We understand that Smurf battles a drug addiction and then goes full blown into dealing and then is arrested. We note that Cheryl has been struggling with a drug addiction that has financially bled her family dry and has dispossessed herself from a life of success by using. this goes on for years and is exacerbated when she is with her boyfriend Joe. Emmanuel even tapes their arguments.
Through it all, we watch Emmanuel grow up to capture what it is like living in the not so safe haven of family and the unsafe streets that they must negotiate as they attempt to get through each day. Emmanuel captures Denice’s children and Smurf’s holiday gatherings, parties, Cheryl’s elderly father who is not well and the general mayhem of the household which does not have enough room for all of them.
Denice who works, attempts to do the best she can but is not a good housekeeper and Cheryl chides her for this. But taking care of her children, cooking for them, working and moving in the direction of being a cop, then dealing with her addicted mother and brother is stressful. Somehow she manages to shore up her strength and be the mother and rock for all of them.
We are upset by their lows and happy that Emmanuel who has found an interest in being a firefighter and who has made good grades in school is graduating. He has a lovely girlfriend who is a good influence on him and it is clear that capturing on film his and his family’s lives may have made a difference in his choices away from running on the streets like so many of the other kids in this 17 block radius.
However, Cheryl and Smurf are on a downward slide with nothing to buoy them up and take them away from the destructive habits that have overwhelmed them. We understand this by how Cheryl has aged and by Smurf’s attitude, that the drugs will eventually do them in unless there is an intervention to make them realize their lives are worth something and that they still have a purpose in living.
Happily, their intervention comes. However, how and when it comes is not only unexpected, it is tragic.
Rothbart’s cobbling together these cinema verite pieces that Emmanuel captured during this time period is an ethnographic study in one black family’s life attempting to make it to the next day. Emmanuel portrays them lovingly through his lens so that we feel we come to know them, empathize with them and want the best for each of them. We are happy for Emmanuel’s goodness and Denice’s ambition and we hope against hope that Smurf and Cheryl will somehow dig deep within to change their lives.
We also stand in their shoes through the intimate approach that Emmanuel takes loving every one of his family members. And we can’t help but ask what would I do if I lived in that 17 blocks? Would I be so desolate I would turn to drugs as a way out and into oblivion? Where do I go for hope when I am so depressed and don’t have the means to seek a doctor’s help when what ails me is I’ve objectified what the culture and society says about who I am; that I’m worthless?
Rothbart has presented this documentary with perfection, keeping the inexpertly shot footage by Emmanuel as a nine-year-old and merging it eventually with the footage Emmanuel shot later and the scenes he himself has shot toward the conclusion of the film. We are left with a heartbreaking portrait of a family who is like us and who wants out of living in an environment prevalent with drugs and violence. And so would we if we stood in their shoes. And that is Rothbart’s point. Deliverance must come to this area. It has been a long time coming and ultimately seeing from the perspective of a nine-year-old who grows into manhood, the heartbreaking message is clear. We must stop the proliferation of illegal guns by making it unprofitable for gun manufacturers. There is no time better than now.