Ann Arbor's Davy Rothbart sees '17 Blocks' as an opportunity for change

Filmmaker's new documentary looks at 20 years in the life of an inner city family in Washington, D.C.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Davy Rothbart was 23 years old when he met Akil 'Smurf' Sanford and his little brother Emmanuel on a basketball court in Southeast Washington, D.C. 

Now — more than 20 years later — Rothbart is releasing "17 Blocks," a documentary mined from his friendship with the Sanfords, and a riveting first-hand account of the struggle of one family against the realities of poverty, crime and violence in the inner city.  

"17 Blocks" director Davy Rothbart.

"It was just serendipity I guess," says Rothbart, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, of the friendship that spawned "17 Blocks," which hits theaters and virtual cinemas on Friday.

That serendipity provided Rothbart — an author, filmmaker and journalist whose work has appeared everywhere from NPR's "This American Life" to GQ magazine to David Letterman's couch, where he was twice a guest — with his broadest canvas yet to explore the ideas of community and connection that have formed the base of his work as a storyteller. 

ReviewStunning '17 Blocks' looks at inner city life with unblinking eye

Rothbart, who grew up watching formative documentaries at the State Theatre and Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, was just out of college from the University of Michigan when he moved to D.C. in 1999. He didn't have a lot of friends in his neighborhood, and he met Smurf and Emmanuel while playing basketball on a court between their two homes — Rothbart lived about nine blocks behind the U.S. Capitol building, eight blocks closer than the Sanfords.

They became fast friends, despite their differences in age (Rothbart was a few years older than Smurf, and more than twice as old as 9-year-old Emmanuel). When Smurf invited him home for dinner one night, Rothbart accepted, and quickly got to know the rest of the family, including mom Cheryl and sister Denice.

Cheryl Sanford and Emmanuel Durant in "17 Blocks."

One dinner became several dinners, and soon Rothbart was a fixture at the Sanford home. At the time, he had just purchased his first video camera, and was learning his way around it. He began filming the Sanfords, and when he'd leave the camera at their house overnight and on weekends, the Sanfords would film themselves.

As life issues would bubble up — family turmoil, Cheryl's drug use, Smurf's hustle as a drug dealer in the neighborhood — the camera became a sort of journal for the Sanfords, documenting everything they were going through at any given time without judgment and with an unblinking eye.  

Years went by, Rothbart moved to Chicago and back to Ann Arbor, but he always stayed tight with his D.C. family. There was no plan for the volumes of home movies he'd amassed until New Year's Eve in 2009, when Emmanuel was killed by two robbers who broke into the Sanford's home to steal from Smurf. Rothbart flew to D.C. the next day, and in talking to the family he came to realize, through Cheryl, the potential of the story that had been captured inside his tapes.

"When I got there, Cheryl asked, 'where's the camera?'" says Rothbart, 45, on the phone this week from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and son. "I was like, 'what do you mean?' She goes, 'We have to film all this.'"

She knew how thoroughly Emmanuel's life had been documented on camera, as opposed to so many other neighborhood children that had been lost to violence. "She knew the value that all the footage could hold," Rothbart says, "and that there was an opportunity to make people care about this issue that is really hard to grasp, because it's usually just told in statistics." 

Emmanual Durant in "17 Blocks."

Rothbart continued filming — capturing the family's grieving process, Smurf's troubles with the law, Cheryl's struggles with drugs and her eventual trip to rehab — and didn't stop for another 10 years. The process continued even as he filmed and released another documentary, 2013's Emmy-winning "Medora," about a group of high school basketball players from a small town in rural Indiana.

Filming Emmanuel's nephew Justin, who resembles his uncle both physically and spiritually, Rothbart knew his story had come full circle and he had a natural ending point. Now all that was left to do was winnow down 1,000 hours of footage he'd collected into a feature length documentary.

Rothbart worked with editor Jennifer Tiexiera, who brought an outsider's eye to the material and helped Rothbart frame his story. What emerges is a raw, intimate, living portrait of life, its ups and downs, its despair and its hope.

Rothbart took "17 Blocks" on the film festival circuit, debuting the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in spring 2019, where Tiexiera won the award for Best Editing in a Documentary Film. MTV Documentaries picked the film up for distribution and was set to roll it out in 2020, but was forced to pause when the pandemic hit. That's not necessarily a bad thing, Rothbart says; as the movie arrives after a year of Black Lives Matter protests, "people have a larger awareness of these issues now than they did a year ago," he says. 

"We have hopes that the film can be a tool for change and make an impact," says Rothbart, who is also a community activist who takes inner city kids on an annual camping trip he calls Washington to Washington. "The Sanfords have done something really special and courageous by sharing their story in such raw detail."

He says response to the film has been incredible. "People are starting to ask, 'what can I do to help neighborhoods and communities like this so that kids can have different outcomes and there's more opportunities for them?' And those are the questions we want people to be asking," he says. "That's when you start to see political change."

In this archival photo from 2004, Davy Rothbart is pictured with various letters, notes, photos and other items from his days with Found Magazine.

For Rothbart, "17 Blocks" has been the journey of a lifetime, the culmination of a career that has included authoring books (he wrote 2004's "My Heart is an Idiot" and 2005's "The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas," both collections of short stories), creating a magazine (he founded Found Magazine, which collects love letters, grocery list and other items discovered from strangers in the wild), TED Talks and more. Next up he plans on trying his hand at narrative filmmaking, a new venture for him. 

What is the tissue that connects all of his projects?

"I think they all are rooted in a curiosity about the people we share the world with," he says.

Rothbart's skill, no matter the medium, is bringing the people in that world a little bit closer together.   

'17 Blocks'

Not rated: Adult situations, language, violent imagery

Running time: 98 minutes

Available virtually through Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater beginning Friday