The Burden of Heartbreak

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When the lights in “Strong Island” (2017) begin to dim and the credits start to roll, the viewer is left with an echo of a scream ringing intensely in their ears. Director and filmmaker Yance Ford has just spoken with the District Attorney in charge of his brother’s case and learns a story left untold is one of the reasons a jury of twenty-three white individuals did not return a true bill for the death of his brother. It is one of the film’s most shocking moments. Ford, composed, stone-faced, and viewed in a close shot for the majority of the documentary, has finally broken down. His scream is the epitome of pain and grief coiled into a tight ball. It is the burden of heartbreak finally unraveling in one short shot.

William Ford Jr. lived a normal life. He had parents who loved him, siblings who idolized him, and friends willing to go the extra mile. He was joyful, exuberant even, in photos shared by his family and friends. When his best friend Kevin Myers reflected on William’s personality outside of his home, he couldn’t help but smile. William was the man.

We learn through journal entries read by Yance, however, that William was more than his family and friends perceived. On one end, he was a poet flowing effortlessly through lines of love and desire, and, on the other, he was dangerously tough on himself. He held himself accountable for the path that his life would take. When becoming a corrections officer required weight loss, he starved himself to the point of exhaustion. He was a complex man blended with hidden and known truths.

He could have been any man seen riding the subway or talking to a friend in the street. To many, he was. But being an African American man raised in a lower-middle-class suburb of Long Island came with a price. William paid the ultimate sum.

Willam’s death and the decision to not persecute the man responsible for his murder were more than nails hammering in the burden of being a black family in America. It was a chainsaw that ripped the very essence of the family apart.

Barbara Dunmore Ford, William’s mother, captures the essence of strength. When she speaks, her back is straight and her eyes are focused intensely on the camera. She is not afraid to speak of a system that failed her child and her family. Yet, when she mentions her son, her eyes dim. Her speech slows. It is as if reliving his life through her memories is a painful path difficult to walk.

Her love for her children, for her son, practically jumps off the screen. But when she speaks more and more of William, she murmurs through tears that maybe she should have fought harder for her child. When she recounts walking into the room and seeing twenty-three white faces barely glance up to notice her arrival, she notes that they must have thought of her as another black woman that “should have raised her child better.” She knows that the murder of her son is an injustice, but she holds herself accountable for not fighting harder in a system working to fight against her.

When we learn that Barbara has passed, it’s shocking. Her strength appeared undeniable, her will to stand for her child seemed endless. Her death leaves a chilling afterthought: maybe the burden of heartbreak can lead to more than pain.

William’s father, William Ford Sr., is captured by his wife and children as a hard worker. He leaves early in the morning to provide for his family, and he arrives home well after dark. His marriage suffers because of his time away from home, but there is always food on the table and a roof over his family’s head. When William Ford Jr. is shot in the street, his father is working, providing. He doesn’t hear the news until he arrives home.

The aftermath of his son’s death leads to a saddening end. He shuts his wife Barbara out. She has to bring his silence to his attention before he finally lets the tears fall. Before Yance’s graduation from college, he suffers from a stroke that leaves the left side of his body paralyzed. Shortly after, Yance arrives home one day to find his father’s wheelchair folded in the corner and placed to the side. While sitting in his favorite spot on the porch, he slipped away. It is as if his son’s departure broke him steadily down. The Hercules figure and the eye of Barbara’s affection is gone in an instant. The burden of losing a child is unimaginable, and, from Yance’s lens, heartstopping.

Perhaps Yance’s burden is the most heartbreaking because it is, as any sibling knows, the most relatable. William gives Yance a call and tells him a wild story. Someone disrespected their mother at the local car shop. So he showed them who was boss. He picked up a car door and slammed it on the ground. He picked up a vacuum cleaner and waved it overhead like someone looking for business. Yance egged him on, encouraged him. He was defending their family, he was a superhero. When Yance learns this story is what leads to his brother’s unjust case, he is left stunned. The burden of the secret weighed him down for years, but the heartbreak of knowing it led to the freedom of his brother’s murderer is earth-shattering.

In the end, “Strong Island” is the story of a strong family, living in America, trying to beat the system. The burden of heartbreak eventually led to the demise of the family, but their story and pain ring as loud as Yance’s scream when the credits roll.