Infuriating, fascinating, and deeply emotional, Strong Island is the deeply personal chronicle and commentary by documentary filmmaker Yance Ford about his search for an explanation of and accounting for why the man who killed his brother was never charged with the crime and walked away without any punishment. Yance’s brother, William Ford, a young African-American man, was shot and killed in 1992 by a White auto mechanic after a verbal altercation at the repair shop where the latter worked. William’s death shocked the Ford family and left them devastated. Continue reading…
That devastation was only made worse when a grand jury determined that William, who was unarmed and had never had a criminal record of any kind, was killed in self defense and decided not to indict the shooter.
Strong Island documents Yance and the Ford family’s attempts to uncover the details of the official investigation into the killing, and of the grand jury proceedings. The family was completely denied access to the case files, which were sealed and which remain closed to the present. In the film, we see Yance calling attorneys and detectives who were involved with the case. Some flat out refuse to speak with him, while others are more helpful. But ultimately the fact remains that the system didn’t mete out the justice that Yance and his family deserved and demanded. And that, the film argues, is largely because the American justice system is deeply flawed, with obvious racial bias.
Strong Island is at its most compelling when Yance Ford shares his family’s personal story by integrating on-camera interviews with his mother and family friends with voiced commentaries that are illustrated by family photos and other memorabilia. The film reveals many sweet moments about his family’s life — such as his parents’ romance and their long-lasting loving relationship — but there are just as many painful memories to reflect on, including those related to William’s loss and to Yance’s youthful struggles with sexual identity. At the time of William’s death, Yance was almost 20, a sophomore at Hamilton College, and female. Yance, who has since transitioned, expresses in the film his lasting sorrow that he was not able to share his true self with his brother.
The shadow of racism hangs heavily over every frame of Strong Island, forcing audiences of all races and genders to recognize the crushing injustice inherent in the American system and how it impacts the lives of Black families who’ve been upstanding citizens striving to achieve the American dream — and expecting the equality of opportunity and status that dream promises.
William Ford wasn’t the first young Black man to be senselessly killed. And, sadly, he was not the last. Yance’s powerful film tells us that, as time has passed, there have been similar cases in increasing numbers. Timely and effective, Strong Island is a compelling personal statement, a intensely moving chronicle of a family’s pain, and an indictment of the institutions that we all trust to protect us. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW Comments:
Esther Iverem: Disproportionate killings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement have heightened public awareness of the shocking rarity of convictions, indictments, charges or even arrests in these cases, which are funneled into the category of “justifiable homicide.” Even this awareness may not prepare us for the power of “Strong Island,” the stunning directorial debut by Yance Ford about the murder of his brother in 1992. The Netflix release is a deft exploration of the shooting death of a Black man, not directly at the hands of the police, but as investigated by a virtually all-white law enforcement and criminal justice system in the racially fraught environment of Long Island, N.Y. Woven throughout “Strong Island” is also the portrait of a real Black middle class family, with real stories of Jim Crow—South and North—which keeps the narrative real, honest and focused on the human ties that bind.
MaryAnn Johanson: Yance Ford’s heartbreakingly moving documentary look at the death of her brother, William, and the subsequent failure for New York police and courts to hold his murderer accountable is yet another in the long line of recent — and very essential — explorations of the utter disregard for Black lives in America by powerful institutions. Through his diaries, family photos, and his own recollections, as well as those of his mother and sister, Ford makes it crystal clear how and why William’s life mattered, and how his death has continued to impact, even haunt, his family in the intervening decades. So profoundly, stunningly intimate that it feels like an act of enormous bravery, this is a film to shatter bigotry and rock complacency.
Sheila Roberts: In his poetic, meditative documentary, “Strong Island,” Yance Ford paints an intimate, moving portrait of a 1992 family tragedy for which the grief, anger, fear and disappointment remain palpable 25 years later. Through family photos, interviews, a diary, and his own recollections, the filmmaker examines the life and violent death of his brother whom he idolized and considered a hero. The film’s timely narrative reveals the profound impact of this senseless death on family and friends, the pursuit of justice undermined by racial prejudice and intimidation, and the angry silence and isolation of grieving family members. Alan Jacobsen’s artful cinematography and lingering camera work draw the audience in to experience firsthand Ford’s painful catharsis as he struggles to come to terms with his loss. Noteworthy also is Hildur Guonadottir and composer Craig Sutherland’s moody, sorrowful score.
Jennifer Merin: Strong Island is Yance Ford’s deeply personal documentary about the murder of his brother in 1992. This tragic event devastated his family, who’d moved from the segregated Jim Crow South to a middle class NYC suburb, only to experience their American Dream shattered into a nightmare of prejudice and racial injustice. In Strong Island, Ford challenges audiences to grapple with the impact that ongoing racism and injustice have on families stricken by personal loss and grief. The must-see film’s release is indeed timely. Read the Yance Ford interview about Strong Island, grief, injustice and wonderment.
Pam Grady: Twenty-five years after his brother’s murder, filmmaker Yance Ford revisits not just what happened to his beloved sibling, but also how it impacted—and, in many ways, destroyed—his family. Interviewing his mother and sister, directly addressing the camera herself at times, talking to his brother’s friends and people involved in the case in which the Black young man’s White killer was identified but never prosecuted, Ford depicts a personal story of loss and rage. But what also emerges is a powerful, poignant, and thought-provoking American tragedy, a tale of a family that escaped the Jim Crow south for a successful, middle-class life in New York, only to discover there is no escaping racism or the effects of its poison.
Cate Marquis: STRONG ISLAND is a documentary that seems at first to focus on a murder never prosecuted more than two decades later. But as we gradually discover, the documentary is really about the impact of that injustice on family left behind. No reason for the failure to charge the killer with murder is given to the victim’s middle-class, suburban Black parents but the fact that the 19-year-old shooter was White raises questions. Read full review.
Title: Strong Island
Director: Yance Ford
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Running Time: 107 minutess
Screenwriter: Yance Ford
Production Company: Yanceville Films
Distribution Company: Netflix
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Esther Iverem, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf,
Written by Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin