Yance Ford’s Strong Island unspools with a procedural-like seriousness as it investigates 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. The documentary builds, out of an outlet for discussing the tragedy of one family, into an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. With an astute sense of both the personal and the sociopolitical access points of his premise, 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 during the waning years of the Great Migration with the hope of escaping generations of racial prejudice. It’s also a careful effort at reconstruction, a collection of remembrances that span long before and after William Jr.’s death, to give 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).
Most compelling of all, Strong Island examines Yance himself, a transgender man who struggled with his sexual identity throughout his time at Hamilton College, which 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 invoke a contrast between two very different Yances: the stone-faced man we see in stark, close-up confessionals, a rigorously self-assured person who talks truth to power on racial injustice and the dehumanization of crime statistics, and the young person glimpsed in photographs who once identified as a woman and grappled with her estrangement from her family. Both Yances directly inform the way the filmmaker views his relationship with his brother’s death today.
Ford’s aesthetic translation of this emotional complexity is spartan but purposeful, utilizing starkly presented old family photographs and images of the filmmaker’s hauntingly empty former family home as an evocative conceptualization of the thing’s that have been lost in his life. Maybe because he spent years at PBS reviewing submissions for the documentary series POV, Ford has learned to largely avoid the more clichéd techniques of his craft; his approach favors a mix of the direct and the abstract, the meditative and the confrontational. That the two modes feel in constant conflict with each other is one of Strong Island’s great virtues. Ford grapples with both the raw facts of his brother’s killing as they relate to the cause of his own activism—the lack of indictment from an all-white jury, the “self-defense” conclusion arrived at by white investigators—while at the same time trying to find an internal catharsis, and allowing that effort itself to become an act of humanism that makes William Jr.’s life mean something more than that of just another statistic.
For Strong Island’s most incendiary sequence, Yance interrogates the impulse of white fear, repurposing the image of his late brother as a kind of litmus test—a challenge for audiences to directly confront their own racially informed expectations. In the film’s most unabashedly vulnerable scene, Ford 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. The insistence on pushing in both directions—on making the film’s broader points of social commentary as forceful as its personal heartache—befits a filmmaker who clearly thinks as deeply as he feels.
These particular high points also help counterbalance the occasional overreach of those two impulses, such as in the one scene that tediously explains how grand juries work or the few too many scenes of generic praise for the late William Jr. from friends and family. Even for a filmmaker as thoughtful and pragmatic as Ford, the closeness to this material makes any idea of impartiality an impossibility. The good thing is, more often it’s just that blinkered sense of moral certitude that gives Strong Island its power.