movie: 17 Blocks (2019)

A filmmaker meets two brothers – Emmanuel, 9, and Smurf, 15 – at a pickup basketball game in southeast Washington, D.C. They strike up a friendship. Film footage from the following twenty years, shot by both filmmaker and the family members themselves, eventually yields this documentary: 17 Blocks, in reference to the distance between the Sanford family home (at the film’s opening) and the nation’s capitol building. Count that as a not-completely-subtle cue to consider certain contrasts.

The Sanfords and Durants are poor and Black and plagued by social ills including addiction, gun violence, and incarceration. They live through terrible tragedy. Their lives are presented here seemingly unmediated: they speak directly to the camera; raw footage is edited together. (All narratives are mediated, of course. And it’s worth nodding to the feat of culling 1,000 hours of footage to create such an intelligent narrative in 90-something minutes.) There is plenty of opportunity to think through larger issues, beginning with the commentary implied by the title. What is most horrifying about this movie is the pain in the lives of the Sanfords; what is perhaps even more horrifying is that they are representative of so many lives, that their pain is so common.

There’s a quite good review over at Rogerebert.com (although it gets the Sanford kids’ birth order wrong), to which I’ll refer you for a deeper look; reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz makes some good points that I agree with about why the film is excellent, as well as a few mild criticisms. I appreciate his point that the film “probably doesn’t push hard enough against reactionary, Puritan, possibly racist readings of the Sanford family’s misery as it should have.” He also warns viewers of how hard 17 Blocks is to watch, and he’s right: it’s awful, discomfiting stuff, and the discomfort one feels watching it is only appropriate and reasonable. There’s another layer for me, though, too. The first half or so felt awfully close to ‘poverty porn’ (a term I may have first learned when I first started to get to know Appalachia). The problem is that in order to recognize problems in communities, in systems, we have to look at people’s suffering. But there’s something inherently problematic about the looking at – something voyeuristic – that’s discomfiting in a different way. I haven’t quite sorted my feelings about this. Possibly, if we are to make a movie of the Sanfords’ lives and look at it like this, we have a responsibility to work harder to do the work Seitz mentions, the pushing back, “in order to guard it more righteously against bad faith interpretations.” I’m not sure. This is not properly a criticism I’m offering, but a question. Also, it is very relevant that Sanford matriarch Cheryl was an active part of the production and promotion of the movie; the family is on board and involved, which we should keep in mind in considering the complicated situation with this (white) filmmaker and any potential question of exploitation.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film is artful, wrenching, visually intriguing and deeply affecting, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. If you check it out, please let me know what you think.


Rating: 7 t-shirts.

4 Responses

  1. Ahhhh, a sobering way to being the day. Julia. Your courage to say you’re not sure and you don’t know moves me. Who does know how to even think about these questions? I venture to say, none of us. I’ve heard of food porn, heck, I’ve enjoyed it. But this is the first time I’ve encountered the term poverty porn. It is sickening to me. We have to ‘look’ to recognize, maybe, but we can >knowrecognized<, racism is the very bedrock of Amerika. Despite the good intentions, the creative and unique vision of the slave owners and misogynists, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, Franklin, Madison, et al [see Jill Lepore's excellent history, These Truths], it cannot be ignored that the white men who came here and committed genocide are the true founding fathers of this country.
    I grew up poor white in the Jim Crow south, Birmingham, Alabama in the 1950s and 60s. My mother was from actual poverty, my father downwardly mobile from society. They taught their 6 children there are values worth risking your life for. A a family, we marched, we organized, we were threatened for the liberation and dignity of our black friends. I don't need to see this movie, I lived on the margins of their reality in an earlier era.
    I recently finished reading I am A Girl from Africa, a memoir, by Elizabeth Nyamayaro. She describes an entire continent with a fundamental philosophy of enlightened self-interest. They even sum it up in a single word, ubuntu–the principle of uplifting others as you uplift yourself. There's a helluva good continent down south. Let's go.

    • ooops, is there a way to go back and edit my comment? Clearly >knowrecognizedrecognize< Sorry. I use brackets for emphasis, because I don't have italics or bold or underlining available, that I know of… and I forgot to say I thank you for your candor and courage

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