There is no shortage of documentaries on the preponderance of racially motivated shootings that have become a fixture of modern American society, but none carry the striking intimacy of Yance Ford’s “Strong Island.” The transgender filmmaker’s remarkable essay film, which explores the lingering pain surrounding the murder of his brother, William Ford, Jr. in 1992, manages to explore the incident while personalizing its reverberations across two decades. Equal parts journalistic investigation and family portrait, Ford’s delicate project transforms the source of his frustrations into an absorbing cinematic elegy.
Despite the dark event at its center, “Strong Island” also functions as an insightful memoir of black life in America. With only a handful of subjects and family archives, Ford tracks his parents’ early courtship in the Jim Crow South through their decision to rebuild their lives in Long Island, where Ford and his siblings grow up caught between the dreams of an integrated society and the more complicated realities surrounding them. Ultimately, his brother’s death provides the pivotal event in the dissolution of that dream, and Ford’s mission amounts to a kind of confrontational grief counseling. In conversations with his mother, sister, and friends gathered over the years, he assesses the tragic circumstances to arrive at a deeper understanding of their significance, and his quest is weighted with equal doses of sadness and intrigue.
Ford expertly shifts between earlier memories and moment-by-moment recollections of his brother’s final moments, pitting the horrific outcome of his abrupt showdown with gun-wielding teen mechanic Mark Reilly with the cold assessment of an all-white grand jury that exonerated the man. (It’s not coincidental that this took place shortly before the Rodney King riots.)
While production values are minimal, and at times the movie’s audacious scope can seem unwieldy, Ford’s personal touch holds it together. Rather than slowly panning across archival images with the clichéd Ken Burns effect, he holds the images up to the camera, as if rifling through a cluttered box of repressed memories in search of the bigger picture.
While many of the law enforcement figures tasked with the case decline to elaborate when Ford comes calling, he doesn’t really need them to say much; the futility of his efforts speak volumes about the challenge at hand. It’s clear that his late sibling, who was unarmed at the time of his death, was unfairly vilified in the trial, and so Ford’s intentions are less about solving that miscarriage of justice than meditating on its traumatic reverberations, both for the filmmaker, his family, and others like them.
Ford embodies the anger of black America with a delicate focus, often appearing in extreme closeup, staring straight at the camera with a fiery gaze. As the movie’s chief narrator, he offers mesmerizing rumination on the intersection of his brother’s fate and the larger problems it represents. Grappling with the shooter’s ability to go free, Ford asserts, “I think he looks like every white man I’ve ever seen.” By not cutting away to an image of the culprit, the filmmaker allows that startling observation to resonate. At the same time, through lively music cues and warm memories of happier times, Ford maps out the psychological armor that has allowed him to keep moving forward, recalling “the resilience that was needed to be black in America.”
Still, much of “Strong Island” lingers in Ford’s turmoil; he often films himself in tears, attempting to make progress with his research while his spirit slowly crumbles. Those somber moments can take the narrative only so far, but Ford complements them with more direct acknowledgements of the story’s devastating core. It’s impossible not to feel the sheer despondency of his mother’s deflation that “I failed to keep our son alive.” Though Ford doesn’t hold his mother accountable, he does a remarkable job of explaining the source of that conclusion. “Strong Island” manages to mourn the loss of an innocent man and celebrate his memory at once; in the gap between those two sentiments, it finds a modicum of solace by expressing the complex range of emotions plaguing Ford and his family. Even as Ford probes the isolating effects of grief, “Strong Island” provides a crucial alternative to suffering in silence.
“Strong Island” premiered in U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.