Celebrated scribe Danielle Scruggs sits down with filmmaker Yance Ford to talk about documenting his brother’s murder, finding closure and asking the tough questions.
Strong Island is a remarkable documentary in which filmmaker Yance Ford explores the long reaching effects of the 1992 shooting death of William Ford, Jr., his 24-year-old brother, by a 19-year-old white mechanic. The mechanic was never put on a trial because a grand jury decided no crime was committed.
But Strong Island is not a traditional documentary about the criminal justice system where the viewer is better for it. Rather than recount the story solely through court records and present-day interviews with the arresting officers and judges, Ford, instead shows us how his family and William’s friends were affected. We see the long-term effects of grief, and what happens when a) a black life is taken too soon and b) when a family doesn’t receive justice when that life is taken.
There are long takes, where the camera lingers on the exterior or a shaved head or an empty parking lot stained with grease. Every person interviewed is perfectly centered in the frame; the camera is tightly controlled and stays fixed on people’s faces and body language as they recount uncomfortable and painful memories. While recounting his family history, Ford lays out archival photographs by hand as he describes his parents’ move to New York from South Carolina, in search of a better life, of some bastion of safety.
This journey led them from Brooklyn to Long Island, where they were confronted with a different kind of violence before William’s death: the violence of segregation, high taxes, schools that weren’t up to par, and surrounding neighborhoods that were toxic and hostile to black people.
There are bright moments as well within Strong Island, despite the painful subject matter—not unlike the history of being black in America itself. The family photos, one of which has “Me and My Baby” handwritten on the front, reflect the tight-knit bond between Yance’s siblings and parents. At one point, we see Yance giving a haircut to his mother, an intimate and loving gesture that shows the child taking on the parent’s role of nurturer and protector.
At another point, Yance reads passages from his brother’s journals, which revealed William as a thoughtful, introspective, and sensitive writer.
“I didn’t really read these things, or take them seriously as a potential part of the movie until frankly I had left the country to re-cut the film from scratch, “ said Ford in a phone interview. “I think that in the alienation and isolation of Copenhagen, I was able to hear William’s voice in a different way. I was able to discover not only that he was someone who wanted love, and was trying to find his way forward in life, trying to make a life for himself and path for himself. But he was also someone who had a keen understanding of the history of African Americans in this country. He was someone who was profoundly changed by his time working at Rikers.”
Ultimately, Strong Island doesn’t offer any easy answers. There is no redemptive arc; there is no happy ending. And what makes Strong Island such essential viewing is precisely because Ford does not try to soothe the audience, which is something that black people in pain are too often asked to do. His brother’s death caused a rupture in his family that has been ongoing for 25 years, and there are too many families in America, who, like his, do not receive justice.
Yance often looks straight ahead at the camera and the weight of 25 years of self-blame and grief is so apparent that you might want to look away. But looking away won’t solve anything, of course. And the questions that Ford asks of the audience with his film—essentially, “What is black life worth to you?” “What are you willing to do to address injustice now?—are ones that the viewer has to be willing to seriously engage with after viewing Strong Island.