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courtesy of press notes:
Strong Island chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy – from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. It is the story of the Ford family: Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children and how their lives were shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America. A deeply intimate and meditative film, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice.
In April 1992, on Long Island NY, William Jr., the Ford’s eldest child, a black 24 year-old teacher, confronted Tom Datre Jr., an auto body shop owner about the quality of a car repair. The interaction turned deadly when Mark Reilly, a white 19 year-old mechanic on the premises, shot Ford once in the chest, killing him. Although Ford was unarmed, he soon became the prime suspect in his own murder. When an all-white Grand Jury decided that no crime had been committed, the killer returned to his life, and the Ford family retreated into a devastated silence that persisted for decades.
Made over the course of ten years, Strong Island is an inquiry into the muted implosion of the Ford family after William’s murder, and a sense-making of the still unanswered questions that surrounded it. Bringing together family archives, domestic tableaux, penetrating conversations with friends and family, and interviews with prosecutors and police, filmmaker Yance Ford creates a revelation of loss, fear and accountability. And though Strong Island indicts the US judicial system and social structures of blackness, and draws a direct line from them to William Jr.’s death and the atomization of the Ford family, the film is not ultimately concerned with finding closure in these institutions. Instead, it seeks truths within the process of filmmaking itself and suggests that justice can be found through a reclamation of narrative from history; through owning and telling the story of a loved one.
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courtesy of press notes:
On the night that riots engulfed South Central Los Angeles, I sat in my college dorm room transfixed by the televised images, silent and awake. On April 29, 1992 four LAPD Officers were acquitted of the most serious criminal charges from their beating of Rodney King. The Defense made the argument that the videotape did not represent reality, that the jury could not believe their eyes, that “something else” had happened to justify the beating.
Twenty-two days before, my older brother had been shot and killed by a 19 year-old white man who claimed he fired in self-defense. William, who was unarmed, was described as “the nicest guy in the world, but then something would happen, something would come over him” and the police pursued a line of inquiry designed to characterize William as a menace.
This is what blackness means in America: that what you see is not actually what you are seeing. Blackness is a visual disturbance. You are visible and invisible all at once if you are black. You are rage and you are danger if you are black. Most importantly, blackness must be contained.
My parents were grade-school sweethearts who became middle-class strivers. For 38 years they lived the American Dream: three kids, two jobs, two cars, and the split-ranch they called home. Until their first born son was murdered. Sitting there watching the riots, I resented the choice that my parents had made – to contain their rage – a choice they felt they had to make to keep me and my sister safe from retribution by the killer’s associates. It was an act of love, but in the end, that choice did not keep us safe. My sister and I lost ourselves in a world frozen in time, and the people we could have been are unknown to us. The Dream had become a nightmare. In order to live, I had to try to understand it. I realized I did not need permission to tell this story. I needed courage.
About the film
When I first began this film my goals were simple – uncover why my brother’s murder went unpunished and look at what injustice lived out over time had done to my family. Beginning with intimate conversations with my mother about why she and my father did not do more after William was killed, I moved on to the Detective for the Suffolk County Police Department and former Assistant District Attorneys who investigated the case, asking for any bit of information they could remember – any fact they could share. I learned that when a Grand Jury declines to press charges and the accused goes home, the official record is permanently sealed. The only document available to me was William’s autopsy report. Then there was the day my mother gave me William’s diary, and my line of inquiry shifted. I began to learn more about who my brother was and what he wanted for his life, in his own words. In these pages was a William I had never known. In order to make the film, I had to stop keeping secrets, stop keeping William’s secrets and open the door. And I realized that because it was now going to be a different kind of investigation, I had to draw on every creative resource I had and assemble a gifted creative team that included my DoP, editor, producer, coproducer and composers.
Strong Island is mindful in its construction, from the choice of each frame to the length of each shot- the film is meant to be an immersive experience: exposing you to what you know exists but hopefully have never experienced. I try to offer a pacing and a style that returns the very thing that is stolen from us each day – our ability to reflect – and offer it back. While the narrative of Strong Island is an investigation that unfolds in layers, the formal aesthetic balances the tension between reserved observation and intense intimacy. The formal interior shooting style and photographic composition of images help establish that William is both there and gone. If the content is fraught, it is held within a stable constant frame, reflecting the simultaneous dynamic of suspense and suspension. We are both safe and trapped in these rooms. This home. This world. This is how we live in a family that has suffered through tragedy. It is as a close as I can take you.
Many films have told the dark, unsettling lesson about the elusive meaning of ‘justice’. Most people leave these films at a considerable distance from the characters. The door into an intimate and challenging knowledge is rarely if ever opened, rarely if ever offered as a possible place of engagement. But how else can we interrogate our fear? How else comprehend the relationship between loss and history. How else, change.
Photo by Simon Luethi
Here is a curated selection of links shared on our Facebook page for additional insight/information:
2/7/18 – “If my nomination can help in any way to advance the issues of trans equality and protection of LGBT people under the law, I am as humbled by that as I am by the nomination.” – Yance Ford
2/16/18 – “We often hear about the need for ‘closure,’ but when the very fact of systemic racism helps set a killer free, what would that closure even look like? And then, there is the question of how that racism, and the anger it provokes on a daily basis, may have been a factor in shaping William as a personality. In a manner unlike any documentary since Capturing the Friedmans, Strong Island continues to unfold with increasing layers of complexity over its running time.” Michael Sicinski – link
2/18/18 – “Black, queer, and transgender: Ford stands at the intersection of America’s most marginalized groups — and he is so much more than the sum of his parts. Throughout the 10-year process of making Strong Island, Ford transformed painful personal tragedy into art as he inched towards the deeply personal decision to medically transition. “Strong Island” deals with masculinity, race, and class, but it is not directly about gender identity and queerness, at least not on the surface.” Jude Dry, IndieWire – link
2/24/18 – “I have been gender nonconforming my entire life. One of the things I discovered last year was my brother knew that I was gay, and he had told all of my friends, “Listen Yance is gay, and off limits. I’m taking Yance to everything, prom, this thing, that thing.” It reaffirms that my brother saw me for who I was. I can with this nomination remind people that trans people in general and trans people of color in particular are subject to violence at higher rates than most any other group. There was just an article about how trans women feel targeted by the N.Y.P.D., and were assumed to be engaged in sex work. If my nomination helps people at all think about the transgender folks in their lives, in their communities, and treating them as humans and equals deserving of protection, I’m happy.” Yance Ford, director of Strong Island – link