“Strong Island” – A Man Tackles Race in America Through an Investigation of His Brother’s Murder

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.

“Moonlight” is the Most Obvious Choice For Best Picture in Years. Here’s Why:

By Josiah Wampfler

Moonlight is a masterpiece. It is a film about subject matter that is (unfortunately) quite unique in the current film landscape. It is a beautifully crafted film with music, cinematography, editing and performances that push the medium forward. And it also shares an interesting connection to Casablanca in that both are based on unproduced stage plays (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue for Moonlight and Everybody Comes to Rick’s for Casablanca). Just like Casablanca has for years, Moonlight is a film that will inspire the next generation of filmmakers – and likely a much more diverse set of filmmakers at that. Plus, Casablanca was also considered the underdog going into Oscars night when it ended up winning both Best Director and Picture. Moonlight should do the same, not because of any comparison to the other films, but because it is the obvious choice. You only get a masterpiece like Moonlight maybe a couple times a decade. Casablanca was one of those films. Now is the time to give Moonlight the same recognition.

Many have already written “Why Moonlight Should Win Best Picture” articles. My personal hero, Mark Duplass, wrote a beautiful piece saying, “The film is important because it is a beautiful, sweet, open love letter to the core human values that connect us all.” He also wrote that it was the type of film he has been trying to make his entire life, a sentiment I share with him as Moonlight has personally inspired me in my pursuit of filmmaking.

Moonlight is a film that features almost an entirely black cast. Mahershala Ali, who plays Juan in the film, is also Muslim. And it is a film that tackles issues such as drug addiction, poverty and sexual identity in such empathetic and nuanced ways. This is not a film that we would normally see at the Oscars. In fact, it is a film that never usually would have been made at all. But, it was, and now it will be in front of millions of viewers because of its nominations and the profound importance of that should not be missed.

It is no secret that we currently have an administration in the White House that is scaring communities of color, Muslims and the LGBTQ community with its actions and words. Because of the rhetoric coming out of the oval office, the very existence of many of these people has become political. We have political debates over these labels and categories of human beings happening right now and Moonlight sits in a very interesting place among it all.

The one scene in Moonlight that has stuck with me months after first seeing it is the moment when our main character, the youngest Chiron (Alex Hibbard), asks his surrogate guardians, Juan and Teresa (Janelle Monae) what a “faggot” is. Juan’s response is not only something I’ve never seen from a drug dealer character in a film, it is profoundly empathetic and true. Juan simply states that a “faggot is something used to make gay people feel bad.”

What a simple, beautiful statement to a young boy struggling to figure out why people are screaming this word at him. And when Chiron asks Juan how he will know if he is gay, Juan says, “You don’t have to know right now, you feel me?”

With this one statement, Juan says so much. These labels that we put on people – gay, transgender, queer, faggot, Muslim, etc. – are not the essence of who people actually are. “You don’t have to know if you are gay right now,” says, to me, that these things are personal. No matter what the world says, these are private things. Whether that be your sexual identity, your religion, your gender or even your race, these things do not define you and what you do with these concepts is your private decision to make.

You don’t have to know if you are gay, because why should it matter to anyone else? It is your identity. No matter what the Mike Pence’s of the world want to say about gay or transgender people, their identity is a private matter and, in short, it is none of their god damn business. No matter what the Donald Trump’s of the world want to say about the Islamic faith, millions of Muslims around the world have made a private choice to follow the tenets of Islam peacefully. Their faith is their own and it is none of Trump’s damn business.

Moonlight is a film that is about identity and that is what I find so universal about it. Even if you are not gay, black, poor or have not experienced anything like the events contained within the film, the message of finding one’s identity is something I think we can all connect with. And as we sit with these characters that may be far different from ourselves and watch them as they chase their identity – something we all are also trying to do – we can empathize with them, we can feel their struggles and we can come to know the things that actually do bring us together as human beings. All of this other stuff, the labels we attach to people and the divisions they cause, mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. What means something is connecting to the humanity of others.

This is why Moonlight should win Best Picture. It is not only a technically impressive film, but an emotionally impressive one as well. It should win because it is masterpiece, it should win because of the importance of a win, and, most of all, Moonlight should win best picture because it brings the best out of us as viewers as we cry, love, smile and hurt with other human beings that may be far different from us. That is the power of cinema and it is what makes Moonlight such a powerful and deserving film.