Trans director Yance Ford won a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling at last year’s Sundance Film Festival for “Strong Island,” his intimate and intense documentary. The film will screen 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Lightbox Film Center (formerly International House). The event is free with an RSVP.
“Strong Island” is both confessional and confrontational. Ford tells his African-American family’s history and the episodes of racism they encounter while he also recounts the situations before and after the homicide of his 24-year-old brother, William, in 1992.
Yance’s storytelling style is particularly shrewd and compelling. He films his own face in tight close-ups concentrating on his eyes, which have a sad, resigned look. His mouth speaks his thoughts and doubts, such as, “Am I saying what I mean?” His commentary can be quite troubling. The filmmaker even dares viewers at its onset to “get up and go” if they feel uncomfortable with the story of injustice about to unfold.
Ford uses family photos — which he films as they are being positioned by his own hands — to create another layer of familiarity and confidence. The director’s striking, minimalist visual style also frames interviewees, including his mother Barbara, his sister Lauren, and his late brother’s best friend Kevin, among others, defining their strength even as they expose their emotional vulnerabilities.
“Strong Island” revolves around the death of William Ford Jr., who was shot by Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old, at a garage in Long Island. The murder case went to a grand jury who returned a No True Bill decision, which is a refusal to indict. Hearing Barbara Ford describe losing her son is heartbreaking, but even more so is her recollection of testifying in front of the all-white grand jury. She explains that several members were not paying attention to her, nor did they care about what she had to say. When Barbara says she does not want her son’s death to be in vain, it is shattering.
The documentary is sure to infuriate viewers as Yance Ford contacts folks involved in the 22-year-old case, including a prosecutor who won’t speak to him and a district attorney who provides frustrating and disappointing information.
“Strong Island” takes viewers on an extremely emotional journey. The Fords were treated poorly and intimidated through several phases of the investigation and subsequent case. There are also revelations that explain how William became a suspect in his own murder.
While the crime is the central focus, Yance Ford includes interesting personal histories, such as how his family came to live in Central Islip, Long Island. He artfully examines some of the social factors including segregation, poverty and crime that his father saw first-hand working as a subway conductor. Yance even describes the black pride and family love that influenced the Fords at work and at home.
The director also addresses his burgeoning awareness of his sexual identity. He claims he had almost no outlets for the desires he felt. Yance explains how he learned about gay people by reading Rita Mae Brown books. Growing up female, Yance was “excited and ashamed” reading William’s issues of Playboy. However, Yance felt as if there was no one to talk to about his sexuality. He regrets never coming out to his brother.
Yance’s self-reflexive approach distinguishes “Strong Island,” which is why his survivor’s guilt is so powerful. A scene of him sobbing and screaming after an especially difficult phone call is a particularly raw moment.
While it is best left for viewers to discover the intricacies of what transpires in the case, the director introduces David Breen, a Manhattan assistant district attorney, who knew William in a way that shows yet another side to his character. William’s legacy is also compounded by his diary entries — which Yance reads on screen. In a sequence that magnifies the tragedy, William wrote about fasting to lose weight in order to become a corrections officer and change his life for the better.
These scenes resonate and echo the far-too-many other stories about unarmed, nonviolent and non-aggressive African-American men being struck down in their prime because of white men’s fear. When Yance provides a monologue suggesting William’s last thoughts as he lies dying on the pavement outside the garage, it is a haunting and poignant episode.
“Strong Island” painstakingly shows how William’s death “caused the death” of the Ford family. The film challenges viewers to confront their own thoughts about race, inequality and injustice. Yance’s justifiable anger and grief inform his observations about his brother’s death. His film does not resolve the complex feelings and social issues, but it is certainly provocative and worthwhile.