The Killing of William Ford Jr.
“Strong Island” examines the violent death of the filmmaker’s brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free. This is a documentary that interrogates murderous fear and perception that is colored by racism. It re-imagines the wreckage in catastrophe’s wake, challenging us to change. Director Yance Ford’s documentary looks at the 1992 killing of the filmmaker’s older brother, William Ford Jr., a 24-yeard-old African-American teacher and police officer-in-training who was shot by a white auto-mechanic while unarmed. It becomes a way to discuss one family’s tragedy by viewing an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. Ford looks deeply at the trauma of black life in America.
The documentary serves in part as a biography of Yance, William Jr., and their sister Lauren’s parents, William Sr. and Barbara, who moved from Charleston, South Carolina to New York City toward the end of the Great Migration with the hope of escaping generations of racial prejudice. It is also an attempt to bring back a collection of remembrances that span before and after William’s death, so that we gain a comprehensive idea of the toll it took on the Ford family. The film even functions as a sharp critique of institutionalized racism, particularly in its characterization of a segregated 1980s Long Island: The Fords lived in Central Islip, one of only a handful of suburbs set up for the black families of NYC’s public servants (William Sr. drove the J train).
“Strong Island” also examines Yance himself, a transgender man who struggled with his sexual identity throughout his time at Hamilton College and this overlapped with his brother’s death. Ford excavates this past as a simultaneous act of civic justice and personal understanding. The most powerful passages here are those about two very different “Yances”— the stark motionless man we see in close-ups, a self-assured person who talks truth to power on racial injustice and the dehumanization of crime statistics, and the young person we see in photographs who once identified as a woman and struggled with her estrangement from her family. Both Yances directly inform the way the filmmaker views his relationship with his brother’s death today.
Ford uses a mix of the direct and the abstract, the meditative and the confrontational to tell the story. He wrestles with both the raw facts of his brother’s killing as they relate to the cause of his own activism and the “self-defense” conclusion arrived at by white investigators and at the same time he tries to find an internal catharsis that will become some kind of act of that effort itself to become an act of humanism that makes William’s life mean something more than just another statistic.
Ford interrogates the impulse of white fear and this, challenges audiences to confront their own racially informed expectations. He completely breaks down on camera, overwhelmed by a phone call from a former police investigator that confirms some of his worst suspicions about his brother’s death. We see how grand juries work.
Over the course of ten years, Ford has worked on his and it is a profoundly personal first feature. The witnesses were prohibited to talk about William’s character in court, so instead Ford uses a patchwork of interviews, memories and journals. His film is both an act of defiance and a strikingly intimate, exceptionally crafted story about his family. He speaks to his mother, sisters and William’s best friends, and explores his own feelings of guilt, anger and confusion surrounding his brother’s death and we feel his regret for the missed opportunity of opening up to William about his own identity.
“Strong Island” outlines the racist law systems that relentlessly reduce individuals, particularly black men, to troublemakers. The film is as much an exploration of the filmmaker’s identity and feelings surrounding his brother’s murder, as it is a loving, even-handed portrait of William. The camera stays on Ford’s face as he shares his deepest pain. Ford has something to say about fear as he explores it and how it can be measured. Reilly escaped justice and prison because his fear of William. The all-white jury considered the shooting to be reasonable defense in the minds of the all-white jury. When Ford tries to picture his brother’s killer he “looks like every white man I’ve ever seen, he looks like everywhere”. The film uses family photographs and self-portraits to explain Ford’s own evolving racial and sexual consciousness in the years before tragedy struck while he directly speaks to the viewer. Ford never revealed that he was transgender to his brother or father, who passed away from complications of a stroke in the aftermath of the killing.
The crime is at the center of the movie, but it doesn’t dominate the documentary. Ford also tells the story of his family — not just how the tragedy tore them apart, but who they were beforehand. It is Ford’s intent as a filmmaker to expose and protest the injustice of his brother’s murder but it also clearly shows what was lost with his brother’s death. After giving us with the facts of the crime, Ford goes back into his family’s history to lay bare a story of racism and optimism, of what hope and hardship and upward mobility meant to a working-class African-American family in the middle of the century. We see that before the murder, his family, through all the labor and prejudice, felt like they were breathing the air of freedom.
At Sundance, “Strong Island” received a Special Jury Award for Storytelling. The film’s overriding subject is grief, and the loss of faith that often comes with it. We go through twenty-five years of Ford family agony and we also get quite a narrative of injustice.