17 Blocks

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
17 Blocks Movie Poster Image
Outstanding, mature docu shows impact of systemic racism.
  • NR
  • 2021
  • 96 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie directly, painfully demonstrates the horrors of drugs: how they can lead to addiction and ruin lives, how selling them can lead to criminal convictions and incarceration and possibly violence. Also underlying messages about evils of systemic racism -- as well as themes of hope and endurance.

Positive Role Models

Emmanuel is the most admirable person here, proclaiming even as a kid the consequences of drug use and instead focusing on school. Unfortunately, among all the family members, he's the one who pays the highest price.


Real, human blood spatters on walls. People mop up the blood. People die (off-screen). Two kids fight another kid in the street. Arguing. A woman talks about being abused, raped, "gang-banged." Description of attempted domestic violence. Target shooting with gun. News reports about shootings, killings.


A person keeps a notebook with names of girls he's "f--ked."


Uses of "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "ass," "butt."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One of the film's key subjects sells drugs. Cocaine sniffing, pot and cigarette smoking. Drinking. PCP and embalming fluid cigarettes mentioned. A person checks into rehab.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that 17 Blocks is an intense, incredible documentary about 20 years in the life of a Black family from Washington, D.C. It's filled with both despair and hope and is a difficult watch. But in the end, it's an essential document of the Black Lives Matter movement. Violence is all the more upsetting because it's completely real: Human blood spatters are shown on a wall (and later cleaned up), and death is dealt with firsthand. People fight and argue, and some shoot at a gun range. Expect to hear news descriptions of shootings and spoken stories of abuse and rape. One of the film's main subjects sells drugs, and people are shown smoking pot, sniffing cocaine, smoking cigarettes, and drinking beer. Other drugs are mentioned, and the movie directly, painfully demonstrates the horrors of drugs. Strong language includes "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," and "ass." One subject keeps a notebook with names of girls he's "f--ked." The movie has clear underlyimg messages about the evils of systemic racism -- as well as themes of hope and endurance.

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What's the story?

In 17 BLOCKS, Davy Rothbart meets brothers Emmanuel and Smurf Sanford-Durant (ages 9 and 15) playing basketball in Washington, D.C., in 1999, and gives them a camera to start documenting their lives. Viewers meet the brothers' mom, Cheryl Sanford, who is crushed to have to borrow money (their life savings) from her aged parents. As time passes, Emmanuel, who refuses to touch drugs, seems headed for a bright future, while Smurf ends up selling the substances his brother reviles. A tragedy shatters the family, but life goes on. More children and grandchildren come along, apartments are changed, and the family continues to struggle and survive. Through it all is the knowledge that, just 17 blocks away, stands the U.S. Capitol building. But it feels like it might as well be on another planet.

Is it any good?

This incredible, essential documentary is difficult and heartbreaking to watch, but it's also an act of fearlessness, a gesture of defiance, and a declaration of hope. 17 Blocks is a mix of home video footage and scenes shot by professional documentary filmmakers. After Rothbart befriended Emmanuel and Smurf in 1999, he gave 9-year-old Emmanuel his video camera, and the boy began filming himself and his family. When tragedy struck in 2009, Rothbart returned to the family and, at Cheryl Sanford's request, started filming anew, continuing for another decade.

The finished film -- cut from some 1,000 hours of footage -- also documents the impact of systemic racism, showing how hard many Black people struggle to stay afloat in a country where the deck is stacked against them. The movie's title alone is powerful: It refers to the distance from the Sanfords' home to the U.S. Capitol, and it's difficult to imagine a bolder line drawn between the country many Americans imagine (or aspire to) and the country they actually have. 17 Blocks is searingly honest, showing the effect of drugs on the Sanford family and including such tragic details as a shop whose entire purpose is to create memorial T-shirts for the many people who've been killed in their neighborhood. But the movie also shows the power of love and hope and the Sanford family's perseverance. It's a difficult watch, but it's an essential emotional experience.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how 17 Blocks depicts drug use, abuse, and selling. Are the effects of drugs and their consequences sufficiently shown? Are drugs glamorized in any way?

  • How did the movie's violence affect you? How does the impact of seeing real-life blood and death compare to the impact of seeing it in fictional movies?

  • What does the movie's title -- and the fact that this family lives only 17 blocks away from the U.S. Capitol building -- imply?

  • How do you think the family's life might have been different if they hadn't been filmed?

  • How does the movie depict -- and contribute to -- the Black Lives Matter movement?

Movie details

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