By Marjorie H. Morgan
The sound of repetitive, relentless punching against a fixed piece of board starts this documentary, and a world upside down and back to front ends it. Every frame of the 107 minutes in between reinforces the idea that the director, Yance Ford, is sharing his personal elegy of grief with the camera. This is a story for everybody, but specifically for you, the person listening and watching right now. This is the message that is transmitted.
“Strong Island” (2017) is a documentary that does not pull any punches. It is a stark, literally in-your-face look at the justice system from the point of view of a Black man in twenty-first-century America. This is not an unfamiliar story. It is, however, a highly personal journey that amplifies other similar stories. Yance Ford, as the director and an active subject in the documentary, is endeavouring to reclaim his family’s history and to rewrite the stolen identity of his murdered brother, 24-year-old William Ford Jr.
Twenty-two years after his brother’s death, Yance Ford faces the camera and starts a quest to find answers: “I’m not surprised that the case didn’t go to trial. I just want to know, exactly, all the reasons why.”
The gravity of the decades-long exodus from private shock to this public statement of grief is shown in the first full frame of Yance Ford speaking directly to camera. Ford warns that the film will be uncomfortable to watch; it is, if one does not want to face the truth. Fade to black. The transitions between the majority of shots are black screens. Just blackness. No sound. No words. Silence and darkness—a parallel of the family journey.
Central to the questions Ford asks is a pair of contrasting cases of shootings: William Ford’s and David Breen’s. Viewers subtly become aware of the differences between the circumstances of teacher William Ford’s shooting and subsequent death, and that of lawyer David Breen, 25 years old at the time, a former assistant district attorney (ADA) who had the Brooklyn Bridge shut down to transport him to a hospital after he was shot at a cashpoint mugging. Breen’s attacker, 18-year-old Kenneth Martinez, was charged with attempted murder, first-degree assault, robbery, and criminal possession of a weapon.
William Ford was one of the two men who assisted Breen when he was assaulted—by apprehending the fleeing assailant who was armed with the gun—and was subsequently a witness for Breen’s case. Ford was later described by Ed Boyar (former Brooklyn ADA) as performing a “fearless … heroic act”: the evening Ford was killed was at the end of a week of appearances in court as a defence witness for the shooting incident relating to David Breen. The legal system he was participating in, the legal system in which he was trying to obtain employment as a correction officer, was the same system that turned its back on him later that day.
David Breen and William Ford both got shot, yet David Breen’s story had a different outcome. Breen was rushed to a hospital with major road closures and his attacker was brought to court. William Ford was left to die alone on the ground and his attacker walked free, sanctioned by the courts.
Barbara Dunmore Ford raised her three children with the principal aim to love one another, and to see character, not colour. The sad truth of this film is the understanding that despite his family’s standards, William Ford was judged primarily on his colour, not on his character.
The character was unseen. The grand jury deemed William Ford’s murder as a “justifiable shooting.” The police evidence in the investigation focused on the deceased victim’s height, weight, and exercise routine, not on the facts around the vehicle in question or the behaviour of the murderer, 19-year-old Mark Reilly. Reilly had an extensive criminal record; it is a matter of record that he used a rifle to shoot William Ford once in his chest. It is a matter of record that the murderer is white. It is a matter of record that the victim is Black. It is a matter of record that the defence system contended that the killing on April 7, 1992, was based on fear. Fear of blackness dictated that justice went absent in the grand jury hearing, which decided that the murder was a case of self-defence because reasonable fear existed. This decision was reached because the victim was deemed the prime suspect in his own murder.
“How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Yance Ford asks. Additionally, he wants to know, “What are the contours of fear? Whose fear is reasonable?”
“Hidden Figures” (2016) noted, “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” Yance Ford’s experience shows that it is even difficult to get equal standing, so there is no hope of getting ahead in his personal experience.
The documentary invites the viewer to see William Ford not as the newspapers, the grand jury, the murderer Mark Reilly, and the police saw him, but as his family, specifically Yance Ford, saw him. Yance has multiple reasons to be passionate about directing the gaze of the viewer to the personality and character of his brother, because he himself has specific identity questions, being a transgender man. He has also stepped into the role as the only surviving male member of the Ford family following his brother’s murder, and his father’s rapid decline and death from illness after that unresolved tragic event.
The filmmaker narrates the film with a steady voice and invites the viewer to see his brother as his family knew him, flaws as well. His whole humanity is displayed. The people interviewed are generally sat centre frame in upright chairs, facing the camera. This is a direct interaction between each speaker and the viewer. Yance Ford is the sole person whose face takes up the whole screen, looking directly into the camera. We only see Yance’s hands as he shares family photos and disseminates the family history and personal portraits as he saw and knew them.
“Strong Island” is a powerful indictment on a legal and social system that continues to fail the Black American community. Yance Ford is harnessing the power of the gaze in this documentary to make his own memory, his personal journey, and his family’s grief readily accessible to everyone. Yance Ford, as a filmmaker, highlights William Ford’s death and thereby removes the anonymity of this case from the never-ending list of publicly ignored Black men’s unjust deaths. To Yance and his sister Lauren, William Ford was a hero, so Yance Ford recreates the legally tarnished name of William Ford in the image of him that they held as a family. The content of this film is the reason why #BlackLivesMatter continues to be relevant as we slink through the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
The reality behind “Strong Island” is not a new story; it is an old story that is always fresh and relevant. That fact is this film shines a light on an individual experience, on humanity at the most raw and vulnerable moments, when sudden and unexpected death crashes into a family, and it is all completed with a mostly calm and always tender attention to the facts as viewed by the surviving family members.
In this portrayed behaviour, Yance Ford mimics his mother, his father, his sister, his community, his “race,” all who have been conditioned by repeated traumatic situations to retain a mainly calm demeanour in the centre of an anger storm. This film clearly demonstrates that any “Angry Black Person” is stripped of their right to be angry, or their right to be viewed as a person: “Angry Black Person” becomes “Angry Black Person.” Black is seen and judged according to the centuries of institutional racism and structural discrimination, and not as Barbara Dunmore Ford had taught, on character.
Viewers may comment that this is a biased, one-sided documentary. I am sure the director would concur: this film was created to balance the view of William Ford as seen by the community and legal structures of Long Island.
As standard justice seemed unobtainable, Yance Ford has taken his case notes in documentary form, to the public. This film is worthy of its Oscar nomination, and it must be a bittersweet moment for any filmmaker. It is a film that should never need to be made, yet the direct personal appeal of the Ford family to see their son and brother as a human being who had been unjustifiably murdered, is overwhelming in its dignity and sadness.
It is a pessimistic view of life in America, and for Yance Ford and millions of people who look like him, it is a daily reality: living with the fear of being treated as a second-class citizen in school, housing, employment, and the law.
This documentary is a dissection of the reality of fear viewed from different spectrums of America. It is an investigation of how the justice system systematically protects white people from just punishment and unjustly castigates Black people as criminals, merely by virtue of their black bodies, even when the Black person is the victim. This is a stark portrayal of the impotency of Blackness when confronted by whiteness and civil justice, the impact of social segregation that nonchalantly draws lines around lives with the same ease it constructs chalk outlines around the fallen Black bodies.
This documentary is the world through Yance Ford’s eyes. It shows how white people imbue black bodies with monstrous characteristics that justify all their actions toward them, including murder. The American legal system seems not to question what reasonable fear is when a white man kills a Black man—it accepts all manifestations and actions against Black people as reasonable. Why?
Yance Ford asks many questions in an attempt to understand what happened to destroy his family, and why the expected murder trial never materialised.
Why? He repeats.
This is the one question Ford leaves with the audience.
Why is this OK? Why does this keep happening? Why don’t you believe what you see? Why do you deny our humanity? Why?
These questions remain unanswered because the Ford family is still waiting for justice, and the American legal system responds: no comment.