July 27, 2021

Davy Rothbart films the precarious life of an African-American family in the most intimate way


Here is a movie that nothing and no one will say anything to anyone. This handicap in terms of “market” is very largely offset by the originality of the project. In 1999, journalist and director Davy Rothbart met 9-year-old Emmanuel Sanford-Durant and his 15-year-old brother Smurf during an impromptu basketball game in Washington. The two young people are endearing. A friendship develops between them and Davy, who, adopted by the family, begins to film it regularly as one would film a family diary. “17 blocks” from the Capitol, the mother, Cheryl, and her three children – a sister, Denice, holds her place between the two brothers – live a precarious life, marred by drugs and violence. Out of reciprocal friendship, they nevertheless lend themselves to the game of filmed intimacy and occasionally seize the camera.

Read also: Davy Rothbart, “The kids were more agile than me with the camera”

Twenty years later, when Davy puts his nose in the thousand hours of accumulated rushes, he decides to make a film of it. The reason why he made this decision is obvious when we discover this documentary which is both edifying and moving. It stems, on the one hand, from the intimate testimony thus brought from within on the extreme precariousness of certain African-American families in a society which keeps them within a humiliating margin and throws them into a form of self-destruction. It is justified, on the other hand, by the fact that the ingredients of this reality as well as the singularity of the shooting (two decades within the same family, with ellipses) make the filmed diary drift towards the universe of series.

Four great moments punctuate the narration. A short prologue introduces the film under the sign of a fatality whose content we do not understand at first glance. Cheryl, the mother, blames herself for a disaster, while footage shows the grieving family at the bedside of a young man’s remains. A cut takes us back to the origins of the film, in 1999. Emmanuel, a subtle and delicate boy, dreams aloud of his bright future. Smurf, his older brother, seems more aware of the reality around them on this notorious Kentucky street, and manages his life as a teenager on the streets. Drug trafficking and book of the girls he “skipped”, lined up by month. Denice, between the two, leads, row, her life as a sister stuck between two guys. The mother evokes a pampered childhood in a petty bourgeois family, attending an upscale college, the dream of becoming an actress or model.

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