Review: Stunning '17 Blocks' looks at inner city life with unblinking eye

Documentary looks at Washington, D.C. family over the course of two decades

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There's tragedy and triumph in "17 Blocks," a stirring documentary that takes a look at one family in Washington, D.C. as it struggles with the realities of inner city life over the course of two decades. 

Ann Arbor-bred writer and director Davy Rothbart had 1,000 of hours of footage to comb through to find his story — editor Jennifer Tiexiera is credited as a co-writer — and what emerges is a lively portrait of an American family, at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, just like life itself. 

Carmen Payne and Emmanuel Durant in "17 Blocks."

Rothbart started filming the Sanford family in 1999, when Akil 'Smurf' Sanford was a teenager and his little brother Emmanuel was just 9 years old. 

The camera becomes a member of the family, and over the years, viewers are granted unfiltered access to the Sanfords, including mom Cheryl and sister Denice.

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

The story takes a turn when Emmanuel, who has grown into a kindhearted soul and is on his way to train to become a firefighter, is gunned down in his home. That was in 2009, 10 years into filming, and Rothbart then focuses on the family's efforts to rebuild and pick up the pieces.

It's a rocky journey; Smurf blames himself for the incident and has a difficult time coping, and Cheryl falls deep into drug use. Rothbart films Cheryl using drugs in a raw scene of unblinking intimacy that illustrates his closeness with his subjects. 

"17 Blocks" finds a natural arc and Rothbart allows the Sanfords to be shown as survivors, rather than victims, of their circumstances. It's just one story, as the gut punch finale firmly illustrates. But the care and compassion with which its told allows it to reverberate well outside its subject area. It's a knockout. 

'17 Blocks'

GRADE: A

Not rated: Adult situations, language, violent imagery

Running time: 98 minutes

Available virtually through Detroit Film Theatre and Michigan Theater 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama