I recently watched 17 Blocks on streaming. This is a documentary shot over almost twenty years, with some of the filming done by the subjects: a black possibly-Catholic family on the harder side of DC. (We see a family funeral at a Protestant church but also references to Confirmation names and attending Mass, and a couple other hints which make me think they might be Catholic or maybe mixed-faith.) The fact that the family did some of the filming themselves does change the feeling of it. There’s more fun, as in an early scene where Cheryl Sanford-Durant’s two sons, Emmanuel and “Smurf,” mess around with changing the settings. There’s also a way of reading the most painful scenes, which in many similar documentaries would feel prurient. In 17 Blocks there’s a possibility that these scenes are the family coming to understand themselves over time, as we come to understand them, and choosing how to tell their story, with some of the self-lacerating elements of a “drunkalog” but also a testimony’s trajectory toward self-knowledge and forgiveness.
There are some beautiful slice-of-life moments: the kid skipping rocks across the long river of the street. There are plenty of DC signifiers, markers of a particular place and people: the Good Humor truck going past the cemetery, the cross-racial encounter which opens and closes the film; the security job, the memorial t-shirts from the Iverson Mall, the interweaving of DC and PG County. I really, really liked everybody in this family, is part of what I’m saying here.
The movie is called 17 Blocks because the family lived 17 blocks from the White House. This contrast struck me as sort of trite, very Bush I with his TV baggie of crack bought in Lafayette Park, so I’m glad that in fact the documentary doesn’t try to force a contrast between dateline Washington and hometown DC. That is less interesting than just spending more time in the hometown.
Instead of place, the real expanse the movie focuses on is time. For a long time the film, which starts in 1999, seems like it will be about the long shadow of the late ’80s – early ’90s. The decisions Cheryl made in DC’s years as “the murder capital” haunt the family. You can see the aftershocks still shaking this family even as murder began to decline in the city as a whole, and you think, This is so many families.
But then at the very end a door opens into Cheryl’s past. Long before filming began, long before the documentarian met little Emmanuel on a basketball court, Cheryl’s own mother tried to help her daughter attain upward mobility. The people Cheryl encountered in the world of bourgeois youth proved to be dangerous, and their cruelty would ripple out through Cheryl’s life and her children’s lives, flashing beneath the surface of her choices.
This is a documentary focused very tightly on individual choices. People who want jobs seem to be able to find jobs; people who want other things are able to find those too, and so the movie is about choices and desires, individual sin rather than communal. That’s of course only part of anybody’s story. There are hints of larger dynamics (in the race and sex of the two lawyers who battle over one family member’s fate, for example), but if it makes sense to say an unplotted documentary of this kind is “about” something, 17 Blocks is about the ways in which individual decisions are powerful even within terrible constraints.