‘Strong Island’ Filmmaker Yance Ford Speaks On His Brother’s Murder, Closure & Injustice [Interview]
‘Strong Island’ Filmmaker Yance Ford Speaks On His Brother’s Murder, Closure & Injustice [Interview]
Photo Credit: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

‘Strong Island’ Filmmaker Yance Ford Speaks On His Brother’s Murder, Closure & Injustice [Interview]

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: Netflix

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.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: Netflix

Okayplayer: How was it making this documentary about such a difficult subject?

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.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Source: Netflix

YF: There isn't a tidy knot, or a tidy bow around every thread in the story because there are no knights in shining armor. There are no tidy bows at the ends of all these threads. The film is ambiguous because that's what it's like to live with an unpunished murder. People have a difficult time accepting that this ambiguity, that this is a great unknown, right? That this anonymous person who took my brother's life isn't ultimately identified in the film. There is no closure, but in fact, what you have just been shown, what you have just experienced, is close to bringing you to what my family experienced. Guess what? It ended poorly, it ended badly… [Some people] want a bright spot that erases the injustice that was done, and there is nothing to erase the injustice that was done. There is the telling of the story, which is why I made the film.

OKP: Right, and what I actually really appreciated about the technique of the storytelling, because actually this really doesn't look like any documentary that I've really seen. Like the way you use your family photos. I love that you had shots of you placing them on the table, or you looking at the photos through the loop and seeing the different color stocks and the different texture of the photos. I thought that that was really unusual, and really engaging to see as well.

A lot of times when you see documentaries use archival photos, they usually put it in a slideshow, or they use After Effects but I really like that you show yourself pouring through these photos. Was there a particular reason why you wanted to present them in that way?

YF: There were a few reasons. At first, when I used the photos, I had always envisioned the photos as being shot items. As being objects that existed as items, and how to present that they're on their own in the film. I was never going to use After Effects. But when I first shot the photographs, I was doing this sort of very ... in a static, slightly into the frame, running for 30, 40 seconds, then sliding out of the frame.

After my mother passed away, and the number of photographs tripled, and we needed to reshoot them. My producer Justin Barnes said to me that day, "She had to take it in as evidence. Handle them with care." When I heard that, I realized that the interactions and the energy with which those photographs were charged, were something that could communicate a story to the audience without me having to say a word.

It shows that you're talking about real life. You're talking about real people. You're not talking about statistics, which I think is something that gets forgotten when you talk about cases like this. William Ford Jr. was part of a family. Here's evidence of that family. Here's evidence of that love.

OKP: So yeah, that part, I thought was really well done, that you chose that approach.

YF: Thank you.

OKP: Your sister in the documentary said for a long time — and again this happened with my family as well — that no one really talked about everything that had happened. How were you able to get people to the point where they're like, "Okay, yes, we can talk about this now?"

YF: By saying I'm making a documentary. Making Strong Island was the first opportunity that we had as a family to talk to each other about our experiences of William's death. It was one of the unexpected benefits of making the film, is that it broke that silence. It broke that. And I think the silence is out of an instinct to protect each other from the depths of your own pains. The whole structure of the criminal justice system. How do you respond to the wholesale failure of that? You know, and how do you dig yourself out of the inevitable blame and guilt when after you've exercised all available options, you're left with nothing?

Silence is inevitable. I think it is a response to that kind of systemic failure. But with the film, and being a storyteller, thankfully it provided my family with a way out. But with a way out of it together, as opposed to each person remaining in their silo. It became a way for us to talk to each other, both during the introduction, and even when the cameras weren't rolling about William, and how we each survived his death in the same sense.

OKP: The whole time I was watching the documentary I was just thinking, you know, if the races were reversed, there's no way that your brother would have walked. There's just no way. It just really made me wonder, you know, is equality even something that's on the table in this society? Is that something that is actually achievable? I don't have an answer for that, and I think that kind of scares me that I don't really know.

YF: Someone asked me the same question last night, about change or about justice or about reform. You know, I said to the person, the same thing that I'll say to you. I wish I felt ... optimistic, but I think that the situation in which we find ourselves, is one that's beyond optimism and pessimism. It's not about whether or not there eventually will be some sort of kumbaya moment where the systems will admit its fundamental flaws and move to fix itself. The system will have to be fixed from the outside, and it will take a critical mass of individuals to do that. Black and white, and frankly of all races.

I don't know when that's going to happen. I don't know when we will reach that critical mass. I don't know if it's going to take many more lives to get there. But I can't tell you that today, because of the verdict that was just handed down, in a case that I was frankly not familiar with. [Note: This is in reference to police officer Jason Stockley being acquitted in the 2011 shooting former St. Louis death of black driver Anthony Lamar Smith.] Because they're happening with such frequency. When we lose track ... it really affirms what black people, both color, and Native Americans have said about the disposability of their lives being the foundation of this country. That I didn't know about this case disturbs me deeply, but doesn't come as a surprise.

There's one thing I do want to add. I don't want people to walk away from Strong Island thinking that my goal is that they only have an emotional experience. With the challenge, with the understanding that not one question in the film is rhetorical. When my character asks at the end of the film, "How do we measure the distance of reasonable fear?" That is a real question. While I know that the film is moving, the film is not actually meant to only put itself inside of your heart, right? The film is also meant to put itself inside your brain.

I don't want audiences to think that they're going to come to Strong Island, have a cathartic cry, and then be able to move on about their day. This film is a call to action. And for those people who are familiar, and who are intimately familiar with this film. I want them to leave the theater feeling like I see you. In the very real and deep sense of what it means to see someone as their whole selves, in their complexity, in their grief, and in their desire to change their own conditions. That's what I want.

Strong Island is currently available for streaming on Netflix. 

Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.