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17 Blocks

In 1999, 15-year-old  Akil “Smurf” Sanford and his 9-year-old brother Emmanuel Durant were joined in a pickup basketball game on a Southeast D.C. court by filmmaker Davy Rothbart. This chance meeting led to a friendship and to Rothbart, with his new video camera, being invited over to dinner with the brothers and their family. Rothbart later began leaving the camera with the family, including mom Cheryl and daughter Denice. They started recording their lives, including daily routines, stressful arguments, celebratory moments, and a harrowing, traumatic incident. After years of videotaping by the Sanfords, Rothbart, and a film crew, the result is the documentary film 17 Blocks, an unpolished look through time at a close-knit family striving to handle financial problems, drug issues, and gun violence. 17 Blocks isn’t a polemic, though; it chooses to focus on one family, rather than taking a wide-ranging look at the systemic racism that helps create and allow these issues. While the movie, named after the distance the Sanfords originally lived from the U.S. Capitol, is often depressing, it also has moments of uplifting joy, like when it shows viewers Emmanuel’s love for his girlfriend and nephews and the way the family members support one another. White director Rothbart and the rest of his team, which includes Cheryl Sanford as an executive producer, manage to walk a fine line in showing the complexity of the Black family members’ often painful situation without exploiting them or turning them into heavy-handed cliches. Additionally, Rothbart and writer and editor Jennifer Tiexiera don’t use off-screen narration to convey the narrative or the issues. While at times this decision makes the movie harder to follow, often it makes it more personal and touching. Filmed largely in cramped rooms and in cars on Northeast and Southeast streets, the documentary offers memorable images: the caring homebody Emmanuel, a grieving Cheryl tearfully comparing her family’s life to the perfect ones shown on Lifetime, and the family cheering Denice’s magnetic son Justin as he earns a yellow belt in karate class. The film is available to stream at theavalon.org, themiracleathome.athomearts.org, or afivsr.eventive.org. $12.