Tribeca 2019: "17 Blocks" Review
In 1999, nine year old Emmanuel was gifted a video camera. What he captured of his family over the following years would be the most poignant home movie ever cut together. “17 Blocks,” a film by journalist, bestselling author, Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker, creator of Found Magazine and contributor to public radio's This American Life, Davy Rothbart, is a profound narrative piece that takes the ‘Boyhood’ approach to storytelling and blows it out of the water.
“17 Blocks” chronicles—over two decades—a family, which like many, deal with their share of hardships. Cheryl, the matriarch of this ever-growing family, is raising her three kids alone. She is funny and charismatic, always harboring dreams of becoming the next Marilyn Monroe. Her dreams, however, are thwarted by responsibility and a cancerous drug addiction. These tendencies surely rubbed off on her kids who lacked a proper father figure. All but Emmanuel. Emmanuel had a lust for life, a drive and compassion for those he cared for. The only one in his family to graduate high school, Emmanuel had big plans of his own. Until it was all over in a second. The opening shot of this documentary shows a rainbow touching down over Southeast Washington, D.C. However, this story is not all rainbows and butterflies.
The year Emmanuel was shot by two, masked robbers, there were over one-hundred homicides in D.C. alone. The Sanford family and Rothbart have offered us this incredibly intimate insight into their world plagued by gun violence, poverty and addiction. The home-video aspect of much of this ninety minute non-fiction piece, feels invasive. We see what Emmanuel sees. Chilling and all the more impactful. We learned from Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” that children offer a unique perspective to narratives replete with sadness and maturity because there is a youthful spirit that contests the tragedy head on with ignorant beauty. Emmanuel’s home video offers the cruelest of memories while he smiles through it all. His infectious spirit lives on in his young nieces and nephews who miss him dearly.
There are bright moments amidst all the sorrow, but the film begs the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? A truly introspective twist of emotions, both equally saddening as infuriating. But Cheryl offers a sage response to all the pain in her life in saying, “Hope is real, hope is alive, it’s what keeps us going, hope for better, hope for tomorrow.” Although she also recognizes that “some pain doesn’t go away.”
There is a moment when Emmanuel’s sister Denise is scrubbing his blood off the walls of their tiny apartment with a t-shirt rag as Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” plays in the background and her children look on asking, “Where is uncle Emmanuel? Where is uncle Emmanuel?” To which all I can muster is a thank you to the Sanford family for being brave enough to share their story with the world. This film rips at the heart with focused blows. It is relentless. It is a cinematic triumph, but more importantly, it hopefully evokes change out of the people who have the ability to make an impact in these communities.
As a wise woman once said, “Hope is real, hope is alive, it’s what keeps us going, hope for better, hope for tomorrow.” I like the sound of that.