Walking ‘17 Blocks’ was ‘like crossing a force field’

‘The title is a challenge’ to lawmakers, says director Davy Rothbart

Emmanuel Sanford-Durant grew up seeing the Capitol Dome from his backyard, but it still felt worlds away. (Courtesy Davy Rothbart/MTV Studios)
Emmanuel Sanford-Durant grew up seeing the Capitol Dome from his backyard, but it still felt worlds away. (Courtesy Davy Rothbart/MTV Studios)
Posted March 3, 2021 at 6:00am

One day a couple decades ago, Davy Rothbart asked a kid from the neighborhood if he wanted to walk over to the Capitol. It was only 17 blocks away.

“Why?” he remembers the 9-year-old saying.

“He had never been there. It was like crossing a force field that separated these two worlds,” Rothbart says. 

Congress had a pretty nice view and the hill was a good lookout point, argued Rothbart, who was 23 at the time and a family friend. So they made the trip, closing the distance between the seat of legislative power and the home where Emmanuel Sanford-Durant lived.

“It was beyond the limits of his imagination that you could just walk there,” Rothbart says, even though he could see the unmistakable outline of the Capitol Dome from his yard in Southeast Washington.

This is not a heart-warming tale or a civics lesson. It’s just a thing Rothbart remembers doing with the kid who became like his little brother, was “hilarious and endlessly curious,” and died at 19 when gunmen shot him. 

When Rothbart decided to make a documentary about a life cut short by gun violence, it wasn’t hard to start. He was an aspiring filmmaker back in the late 1990s, and he had often passed his handheld video camera to the Sanford family so they could record themselves. There were hours of footage.

Grieving mom Cheryl Sanford agreed the story should be told, even if it would show her using cocaine and struggling to find hope. They thought about calling the movie “Emmanuel,” but settled on “17 Blocks.”

“The title is a challenge to congressmen, senators and their staffs on Capitol Hill to pay attention to what’s happening literally in your backyard,” Rothbart says.

When the movie begins, the Sanford family is living in Barney Circle, right where Pennsylvania Avenue starts its journey east over the Anacostia River. Emmanuel is in elementary school and likes to experiment with the settings on the camera, putting his face close to the lens. He plays basketball across the street from Kentucky Courts, a housing complex once known for its soundtrack of gunfire. And he jumps the fence of the Congressional Cemetery to eat popcorn and watch crows fly around the graves.

Rothbart is a white director telling the story of a Black family through shaky footage filled with intimate and sometimes painful moments. At first the style seems in line with the obsessions he explored as co-creator of “Found Magazine.” He made his name by collecting love letters, hate mail and other scraps of paper that strangers had lost or thrown away.

But “17 Blocks” remains committed to the Sanford family for a total of two decades, following them to a new home in Northeast Washington and showing how they cope with Emmanuel’s death. While Rothbart gets the director’s credit, Cheryl Sanford is listed as executive producer.

After the movie made the rounds of the festival circuit in 2019, the pandemic delayed its wider release, Rothbart says. Now people can pay to watch it from home through their local theaters.  

Raw and personal, the movie is also a plea, says Rothbart. Gentrification has reshaped many of the places where Emmanuel grew up, but economic inequality in the city is pronounced, and Capitol Hill still seems like a bubble with a dome on top. While around 45 percent of people who live in D.C. are Black, three-quarters of lawmakers are white. Some in Congress pretend that the rest of the city doesn’t exist, traffic in harmful stereotypes or both. 

“People here don’t understand how we live in real America,” said freshman Rep. Lauren Boebert in a widely seen ad earlier this year, implying that the 700,000-strong population of D.C. is somehow unreal.

“I walk to my office every morning by myself. As a 5-foot-tall, 100-pound woman, I choose to protect myself,” she said, citing concerns about violent crime as one reason she planned to carry a Glock around. The video showed Boebert striding through some of the safest blocks in the city, not the wards that have seen rising homicides in recent years

Lawmakers need to take responsibility, Rothbart says. They could start by backing policies that close the opportunity gap, improve schools for underserved kids and help people recover from substance use. “Gun violence is a symptom, not a cause,” he says.

Though Rothbart now lives on the West Coast, he tries to stay current with advocacy in D.C., like the push for statehood (“I have a sticker on my car,” he says) and Washington to Washington (a group co-founded by Cheryl Sanford that hosts outdoor adventures for kids). He can still feel the “force field” that surrounds the Capitol, and it would be easy to say it keeps people both out and in. Even now, Rothbart wonders how many lawmakers who stay in rowhouses on Capitol Hill find a reason to go east of Lincoln Park.

Maybe the better metaphor would be a one-way mirror. For people who lived where Emmanuel did, “there was a feeling of invisibility,” Rothbart says. “They can see the Capitol building, but the Capitol can’t see them.”