It’s rare that a documentary has the ability to take the kind of long view of events that establishes context and consequence. “Time,” released this past fall on Amazon Prime, is such a film, combining 21 years’ worth of professionally shot and home-video footage to tell the story of a Black family torn apart by crime and imprisonment, and ultimately healed and reunited by patience, love and determination.
Almost a companion piece, the new documentary “17 Blocks” accomplishes something eerily similar. Begun in 1999, when the director Davy Rothbart met a charismatic 9-year-old named Emmanuel Durant Jr. during a pickup basketball game in Southeast Washington, the film covers nearly two decades’ worth of everyday life and drama in the boy’s family.
Intercutting amateur footage shot by Emmanuel’s family with scenes filmed by a trained cameraperson, “17 Blocks” shows us the struggle with addiction fought by Emmanuel’s mother, Cheryl; his older brother “Smurf’s” work in the drug trade (and Smurf’s encounters with the criminal justice system); and the challenges faced by their sister Denise in raising children as a single mother. Most significantly, it looks at a single incident of shocking violence — both in the aftermath and in the circumstances that, to some degree, foretold it.
“My actions caused a chain reaction,” says Cheryl in hindsight, in the older-but-wiser interview (shot only a few years ago) that opens the film. But cause-and-effect cannot always be traced to any one person.
In its early scenes, “17 Blocks” can be depressing. (The film takes its name from the fact that Emmanuel and his family live 17 blocks from the U. S. Capitol at the start of the film.) Financial difficulties and the debilitation of drugs — the latter both a symptom of and an escape from pervasive hopelessness — take their toll, with Emmanuel’s sunny demeanor and ambition to become a firefighter sometimes seeming like the only ray of light.
But stick with it. “17 Blocks” is in it for the long haul, as should you be.
Rothbart, a writer and Emmy-winning filmmaker (for “Medora,” a documentary about both basketball and economics in rural Indiana, shot for “Independent Lens”) is also the co-creator and editor of Found magazine, which celebrates the serendipitous poetry of random lists, letters, photographs, doodles and other glimpses into strangers’ lives. He brings a similar appreciation for the raw and the unfiltered to this project, although “17 Blocks” has a more singular focus: a slowly emerging purpose that’s lacking in that other endeavor.
There is an overarching theme that eventually coalesces here. It’s tempting, based on Cheryl’s opening comment, to call it, for lack of a better word, blame. Late in the film, she reveals a teenage incident of trauma, from which, in its unhealed form, it’s easy to trace a straight line to the tragedy around which everything else pivots in this film.
But nothing is ever quite that simple. Smurf, in understatement, puts his finger on other, more systemic factors behind the cycle of poverty, crime and violence: When you’re uncomfortable, he says, you make bad decisions.
Ultimately, Rothbart doesn’t seem all that interested in making a film about social ills and their roots. It’s Cheryl who points to something else — something that comes closer to what “17 blocks” is actually about, and about which it takes the time and the patience to watch and wait for. “Hope,” Cheryl tells us, “is real.” By the end of this remarkable film, despite the pain and despair that its subjects experience in so many of its earlier moments, you might come to believe that too.