A Real-Life ‘Boyhood’ About a Black Family Haunted by Gun Violence in the Nation’s Capital
Filmed over 19 years, Davy Rothbart’s new documentary follows one family’s story of struggle in Washington, D.C., not far from the White House.
The documentary 17 Blocks, from director and FOUND Magazine creator Davy Rothbart, was filmed over the course of two decades, beginning at the turn of the millennium. The movie follows the Sanford-Durants, a family by whom Rothbart was “adopted,” as the mother puts it, living in a southeast D.C. neighborhood situated just 17 blocks from the White House. The timescale of the movie recalls Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the 2014 film featuring the same actors (including the director’s own daughter), shot over the course of 12 years. But where Boyhood followed an upper-middle-class white boy in Texas, Rothbart’s documentary centers on a working-class Black family scraping by in an over-policed, under-resourced area of the capital, whose proximity to the most powerful politicians in the country has done little to alleviate the simultaneous and interconnected tolls of poverty, the carceral state, and gun violence.
The story began in 1999, when 9-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his 15-year-old brother Smurf met Rothbart in a pick-up basketball game near their home. Rothbart, a young filmmaker, had just moved to the area—far from his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan—and didn’t know many people. He hit it off with the boys, who later invited him to meet their family: their 12-year-old sister, Denise, and their mother, Cheryl Sanford. At the time, Emmanuel buzzed with a nerdy, curious energy—his favorite subjects in school were, basically, all of them—and Rothbart’s filmmaking work piqued his interest. Over time, the director taught Emmanuel to use his small camcorder, and let him bring it home, where he and his siblings started to film each other and interview their mother about her life.
The viewer learns that Cheryl grew up across town in a middle-class area with government-worker parents, but a violent childhood trauma—a group of boys lured her from a party to rape her—and single motherhood pushed her into dire financial straits and addiction; that Smurf has gotten involved in drug dealing and had some early run-ins with the law; and that Cheryl’s boyfriend, Joe, devoted himself to her and the kids. “What’s my favorite thing?” Joe asks a shaky camera, “It’s called Cheryl.” Their early footage has an appealingly lo-fi, quasi-accidental charm; the clumsy excitement of childhood discovery is literally caught on tape. In one of the first scenes, Emmanuel captures himself finding the camcorder’s filter settings, giggling as he flips between sepia, black-and-white, and night-vision.
What might have amounted to a sequence of home movies evolved into something more complicated, in part because Rothbart and the Sanford-Durants remained deeply entangled in each other’s lives. Their recording sessions didn’t end after a summer; they continued into Emmanuel’s adolescence, as he graduated high school and began a relationship. Together, the Sanford-Durants and Rothbart shot about 1,000 hours of footage over the course of 19 years (the movie, which screens in theaters and online Feb. 19, first debuted in 2019). When it starts, Smurf has the beginnings of a mustache, and Denise has barely entered puberty; by the end, both have hit 30 and had two kids. Denise’s son Justin is about the age Emmanuel was when he first started filming. But time isn’t the only force shaping the family. On New Year’s Eve, 10 years after Emmanuel first borrowed Rothbart’s camcorder, a group of armed men broke into their home. They were looking for Smurf, who, the movie implies, might have owed the men money. He wasn’t there though. They found Emmanuel instead, who turned around to find a gun stuck in his face. In the decade since he’d met Rothbart, Emmanuel had become the family’s caretaker: he helped his mother during relapses, virtually adopted Denise’s kids as his own, and was studious, sober, and in training to become a firefighter. During the intrusion, it was Emmanuel who moved to grab the gun from his assailant’s hand, and was shot. The invaders left with every penny in the house: $200. Emmanuel was 19 when he died.
The sudden loss of Emmanuel sends 17 Blocks careening in a different direction. A film born out of the interest of a single kid becomes a portrait of something less particular in the United States—the aftermath of gun violence. The Sanford-Durant’s footage of their own mourning remains jarringly intimate; in one shot, Denise cleans her own brother’s blood splatter off their living room wall. But a recurring theme of the documentary’s second half is its similarity to the stories of so many others. At one point, Emmanuel’s girlfriend goes with her mother to a local custom T-shirt shop to buy in memoriam merchandise—it is, the clerk says, their most popular item. Later on, she rifles through Emmanuel’s things, only to find an invitation to the funeral of his former classmate. “Oh look,” she murmurs, with what sounds like hope, “that person’s buried at Harmony, the same place [Emmanuel] is going to be buried at. Maybe this was one of his friends, and he’ll be dead with one of his friends.”
Though the film unfolds like a home movie, composed of raw, self-shot footage, it is ultimately not an amateur production, but Rothbart’s. To some extent, the distinction requires a bit of hair-splitting—the director and the Sanfords are clearly close. He spent the Y2K apocalypse at the Sanfords’, and many years worth of holidays and birthdays. When Emmanuel died, Rothbart flew to D.C. the next day. But the director never shows up in the film, and, save for a line of introductory text, the context for their relationship is mostly excluded. The rationale is easy to understand: Rothbart is white, he’s not from D.C., and ultimately, he is not part of the family. It was at Emmanuel’s initiative that the Sanfords started filming themselves, and under Cheryl’s direction that they kept at it for two decades. “Cheryl greeted me with a question,” Rothbart writes in the film’s notes of his arrival after the murder, “Where’s your video camera? ‘So many people are killed by guns in our neighborhood,’ she told me, ‘but none have had their entire lives documented as thoroughly as my family.’”
But as the movie progresses, the presence of an outside eye becomes increasingly obvious—the shots become more stylized, the interviews more pointed—and at times, leaves an opening for some moral unease over what came before. In one early scene, for example, Emmanuel catches his brother and Anthony beating up a boy who owes them money, rolling the camera as he screams for help. In another, Emmanuel films his sister sitting in front of a bed where their mother lies unconscious in just a shirt and underwear, perhaps asleep or, as the next scene implies, high. The camcorder cuts from Denise to Cheryl, zooming in briefly on her silk panties. Denise, recognizing that some privacy has been violated, throws a blanket over their mother’s legs. But the moment had already been caught on camera. Both incidents actually happened and both represent slices of Emmanuel’s life as he experienced it. Their inclusion, though, carries a whiff of exploitation, begging questions of consent from the others they involved.
Like Boyhood, the temporal element of 17 Blocks becomes one of the film’s central characters. And it’s hard not to marvel at the sheer fact of seeing someone age over time, speeding up a process that happens so slowly it’s impossible to take in. But the tragedy of 17 Blocks, both as a movie and as a document of people’s lives, is the aging that doesn’t happen—the crime that disrupts its intimate, painstaking timescale. Instead of a study in boyhood, it becomes a document of what happens when growth is arrested, and how it destroys those left behind.