Dir. Yance Ford, USA/Denmark, 2017, 107 minutes
Unless you live in Chicago, it’s been a while since he images of dead black men have been all over the news. The Other of the month now is Muslims, whatever the color.
But a documentary at the Berlinale, by way of Sundance, puts us back in touch with a problem that’s not going away. Strong Island, directed by Yance Ford, takes us back to what law enforcement might call a special killing, not that they aren’t all special.
Ford’s family didn’t live in the ghetto, or at least not in the kind of urban neighborhood that’s usually identified as one. The family of professionals lived on Long Island, the massive now-heterogeneous suburban land mass east of New York City. Hence the title. The family lived in one of the towns on Long Island where blacks tended to live, as much by what was permitted in practice as by the family’s choice. Think suburban segregation.
Ford’s brother was killed in a dispute over a car accident and repairs that were agreed to be made. The killing took place at an automotive garage. The only witnesses seem to have been Ford’s brother and a white auto mechanic whose garage was known for crooked activities.
Charges were not brought. The killer, who never denied shooting Ford’s brother, was not prosecuted.
You’ll also be able to see Strong Island at New Directors/New Films at Lincoln Center and MoMA. .
Here’s my review from Screen.
Strong Island is a relentless documentary that reconstructs the killing of a young black man by a white teenager in the New York suburbs. It feels like a sibling’s cry that “my brother’s life matters,” but it’s mostly a lone voice.
The doc’s title plays on the name of Long Island, where the killing took place in April 1992. Its timeliness, as rage mounts over the killings of black men by police in the US, is sure to revive media interest in yet another case where justice was denied. That moral urgency could earn it awards on the festival circuit, with plenty of tearful Oprah moments on television, plus a limited theatrical run.
Television is where Strong Island will play most widely, but there’s also enough drama here for a feature remake.
The murdered man in Strong Island was William Ford, and the film’s narrator is the director, Yance Ford, born his sister, now a man. William Ford, about to train for law enforcement, was shot at 24 in a dispute over a car in a repair shop near his home. The killer, a mechanic whose truck had driven into Ford’s car, was never charged with a crime. A grand jury of 23 white citizens chose not to indict him.
If that description feels like a contemporary American template, this murder isn’t. This is not a tale of inevitable fatalism. Yance Ford builds the story on the strength of her middle-class family. His parents, who had good jobs, left the American South and then abandoned New York City for the American dream of a home in the suburbs, which turned out to be racially segregated. The closest thing to humor in the sober doc comes in wry music cues to “Let the Good Times Roll.” Long Island for them was a place where even a dead black man like William Ford was regarded as a suspect before he was seen as a victim.
As glowing family pictures form a leitmotif running through Strong Island, we hear from Yance’s appealing mother, a school principal, who dies while fighting a losing campaign for accountability. Yance Ford never shows us the killer who said he feared for his life, or the owner of his garage, where stolen cars were taken apart and sold. (Somehow you get the feeling that the killer’s face won’t be a secret once the media catch up with him.)
What we do see, covering the entire screen, is the face of Yance Ford at point-blank range from the camera, retelling the story and enduring the futility of bringing the young killer to justice. 25 years later, Yance can’t escape the pain of a brother’s death – forgotten by so many others – and the frame becomes a confining enclosure for a sibling’s anguish coming out of every pore.
The extreme HD tactility of these first-person close-ups is not designed to make the audience feel comfortable. It’s the personal aesthetic of this painful film. By the end, you remember this family and its loss, and Yance Ford’s war of attrition.
Yance Ford can’t bring William back, but he had secrets that the director discovered through piecing together fragments that he left behind. It begs the question – if so much of his sparsely documented life can be reassembled, what about the evidence to charge his murderer?
Strong Island is not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s now-classic doc that exonerated a wrongly-imprisoned man, although its stylized look evokes Morris as it blends stylized cinema with a rigorous reconstruction of the bare facts. Justice isn’t done, which we know from the start. The murder never even gets to trial, and now all court documents are out of reach
Yance Ford is a powerful witness for a journey that finds truth, but no redemption through the legal system. Strong Island is a tribute to the memory of a man who becomes more noble the better we know him. The doc reminds us that justice can be as elusive in the US suburbs as anywhere else, and that having guns keeps people who are born different from getting too close.
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