Yance Ford: It wasn’t difficult in the way that most people think. Frankly, the silence of it was becoming harder than the story itself. Why it was difficult was that we began the film. You know I started development in 2006, and to give it some context, I didn’t realize that the iPhone and my film are about the same age. Which is to say there were no cell phone cameras, there was no robust social media, there was no Twitter or Facebook. We had yet to see this escalating rash of death at such an available pace.
The difficult part of Strong Island was the way in which the world, year by year, seems to be … closing in around the story, and aside from the narratives about inherent danger, the narratives are conflating the bodies of 12-year-old boys into boxers or 18-year-olds into demons. That kind of narrative was the same narrative of a church fear, of the large sense of my brother’s body, that it had been so much a part of the lingo and the justification of this crime.
So the difficult part was having this kind of weird synchronicity, right? But it always felt like the necessary story to tell. The more awful things happened, the most determined I became to make sure that I told the story in its full complexity. And I’m really proud of this film that we have. It was really compelling. Even though, you know, of course, it was like a very … you know a heavy subject matter.
OKP: It actually reminded me a lot of … my uncle was actually killed back in 2009.
YF: I’m so sorry for your loss.
OKP: Yeah, and it was just really … like watching the documentary, it just kind of reminded of how my uncle’s death was talked about by the cops that we went to. Actually, his murder has never been solved. When I was watching this documentary, it reminded me of the sort of dismissiveness that your mother talked about. The way she was treated by the police and the grand jury. I was like, “Wow. That’s almost exactly what happened with the way my uncle was talked about.”
YF: The disturbing part about this film, and about releasing Strong Island, is that every screening has someone who tells the story of losing a loved one to an unsolved murder, or to an unpunished murderer, or to an under-punished murderer. Whether it’s the gentleman who happened to be driving the car that Netflix sent to me last night or multiple people in the audience in Toronto. Multiple people at a hoity-toity screening in New York for the film. Now, on this day alone, you and another journalist, two completely separate people, both have homicides in your family. Both see the echoes of what you experienced, in your experience. Both of you are African American.
OKP: Wow. Wow.
YF: I think because it keeps happening, it’s proof that we have only scratched the surface on these kinds of times. It is proof that we have always told the truth, we have always been accurate about our treatment by this criminal justice system, which fails to deliver justice. Which fails to believe that African Americans can be victims of crime. Which fails to challenge essentially the assumption of justifiable homicide. And or the homicide that doesn’t necessarily matter to them.
OKP: There was something else you said in the documentary that was really striking to me. When you were saying that you picture Mark Reilly looking like every white guy you’ve ever met and that he’s everywhere. I thought it was actually really important to hear you say that because it places what happened to your brother and your whole family in a continuum, instead of a vacuum, instead of like an aberration. I was wondering, could you talk a little bit more about the decision to include that passage in the documentary?
YF: Sure. You know, it’s funny. That was in terms of my character, and being the most sort of clear and precious about living through this. You know, when I was interviewed, I never knew what questions were coming. I was behind a wall of sound. Like, to try to be alone in a room and get to a place where I could step out of the director’s role, and step into the role of subject.
When I was asked if I had ever imagined what Mark Reilly looked like—because I’ve never seen him—that was … you know, that answer came almost as instantly as the question. Almost before the question was over, because there has always been this casual violence perpetrated against African Americans, by white citizens. Going back generations. Whether it’s Emmett Till, whether it’s my grandfather. Whether it’s, you know, someone who’s on the wrong street at the wrong time after sundown. In the South. Right? Sundown Towns.
There has always been this casual violence. It’s one of the things that I mean when I say, “Dredge the river and you will find him, or someone who could have been him.” Because William’s death is on the continuum of violence against black people. Like our society likes to compartmentalize into discrete incidents, and in their compartmentalization, it somehow becomes like you said this special thing when someone else happens to lose their life. But if you are living with a series of compartmentalized events that are identical to one another, you actually realize that these are not compartmentalized events…
I think it’s important that that identification, and that sort of calling out of the ability of any white person to take the life of any black person. It’s not reduction, because at any moment in time, whether it’s historical or whether it’s not, white people have always been able to differentiate themselves from the mass. White people never had to struggle with anyone saying that they are a monolith. When I say, “No offense to present company, he looks like every white man I’ve ever seen,” is because whiteness is … frankly? Whiteness is a certain type of danger that other white people have the privilege of not being subject to. But as people of color in the United States, the ever-present danger of white men, or the ever-present danger of officers of the state, is something that we have to be conscious of at all time. That’s why that moment in the film is so important.
OKP: Yeah, that was something that I was really glad to see because I think a lot of times—and I think this is a very American thing to do—in storytelling, there’s a need for like a redemptive arc. Or there’s this need of one shining knight in armor who helped try to make everything better. There wasn’t really that in this documentary, and I think that makes it … more painful, but also more honest because we see things happening over and over again, and we see as of right now there’s no knight in shining armor.