Strong Island is such a striking film because, even though it revolves around a murder, it is not your typical crime documentary. In the film, first-time director Yance Ford investigates his brother’s murder, but we never see the killer’s face and his name is never spoken. When William Ford was shot and killed in 1992 by a white man, the case never even went to trial, and it has haunted the Ford family for years. Through extremely emotional and powerful interviews with his family and friends, Yance Ford explores the racial dynamics that led to the murder and the ultimate failure for the grand jury to indict. And through William’s case, we see parallels to more recent incidents of racial bias and the toll unjustified deaths like these take on families.
One of the most important aspects of Strong Island is how it gives space for the Ford family to be angry and for us to see the emotional and physical toll of William’s death. Too often, we see the families of black men killed unjustifiably only for a brief period of time. We don’t often see the type of righteous anger that Ford shows us and we never see the long-lasting effects an event like this can have on families. We see that with Yance’s father, who passed away soon after William was killed, and his mother, who dealt with health complications for years before ultimately passing away.
Strong Island also, importantly, does not portray William as an angel and questions why his killer, and society as a whole, are fearful of black and brown men. Toward the middle of the film, we hear about an incident between William and his eventual killer. William, angry about the guy disrespecting his mother and not having his car work done yet, throws a vacuum cleaner and picks up a car door and slams it down. Eventually, we find out that this is the reason the grand jury did not indict.
Yance asks the question, “How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Even though his brother was unarmed at the time of the shooting and several yards away; Even though the incident that caused “fear” happened several weeks earlier; The grand jury thought that his was reasonable self defense. What does that say other than the grand jury thought it was reasonable to be scared of a large black man?
Through a thoroughly engaging film, Yance Ford spells out something that I don’t think a lot of people understand: A person does not have to be completely innocent to be undeserving of being killed. Too often we see the media try to demonize people of color who are unjustifiably shot or we see this rush to prove that they were incredible superhumans of goodness. But they don’t have to be angels. The point is, people of color in the United States should not have to be good to avoid getting killed, and that is a point Strong Island makes brilliantly.
Strong Island is the perfect example of the good that awards bodies can do by recognizing films like it. Even though the film was on Netflix, it wasn’t even on my radar before it got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Netflix, seriously, do better promoting this stuff…). Once I watched it, I saw immediately why it was nominated. Not only does it tell a story that is incredibly moving and important, but Yance Ford also made a beautiful film. There are so many shots throughout the film that have stuck with me, like one where the world is upside down while the camera glides down a street on the front of a car. Or the extremely striking moments where Yance speaks directly to the audience, his eyes clearly conveying the anger, sadness and loss of this painful story.
Personal, enlightening and heartbreaking, Strong Island is as frustrating as reality. The Ford family never got the answers they desire. They never got the justice they deserve. And Yance Ford doesn’t have the answers or justice for his audience. All he can do is ask the questions that will hopefully lead to justice for other men like William.