Update January 24, 2018: Strong Island has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, making Ford the first trans person to ever receive an Oscar nod.
This story was originally published on September 14, 2017.
Netflix just dropped another true crime documentary. Strong Island, out Friday, has made the streaming platform its home after getting great reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Upon first glance, the film, directed and produced by Yance Ford, is about the death of an unarmed Black man and a grand jury’s decision not to indict the white man who shot him. That unarmed Black man in question, William Ford Jr., was the brother of Yance. This is not just a commentary on our current racial climate; it’s way more than that. Strong Island dares to dig deeper into a family grieving the death of one of its own.
William’s murder wasn’t prosecuted because the grand jury decided that Mark Reilly shot him in self defense on that fateful night in 1992. In another move that sets Strong Island apart, the documentary doesn’t spend a lot of time refuting this claim. Instead, that possibility — just like the murder itself — is put in a framework of identity, social politics, and emotion. Where other movies like this one put viewers firmly on one side of a murder or the other, clearly defining characters as good or bad, this one dares to question the treatment of William's death as less than human on the basis of his simple humanity.
The truth is that the intensity of his surviving relatives’ emotions is so striking in Yance’s project that Strong Island would be a gripping film even if William hadn’t died at the hands of a white person whom a group of his peers decided not hold accountable for it. What Yance was able to do so well is narrate the story of his family — from his parents' first meeting in the Jim Crow South to their move to the suburbs of Long Island where William was killed, and then to the present — so that no moment was less significant than the other at shaping them into the people they are today. That their journey is as much sentimental as it is geographical and sociopolitical is brilliant.
When we say Black lives matter, it is often with precision focus on someone who has lost their life. We don’t often consider the crippling impact on the lives of the people who love them. Strong Island’s sharp focus on the raw emotions of the Fords was a reminder. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie of its kind, but there is nothing unique about Black families being cracked by murder of one of its members.
Ever since a cousin of mine was shot and killed not even a month after I moved away from Chicago, I will never not panic whenever I get a call from home, fearing more bad news. He was killed right outside of his home, and his mother has to look at the spot where her son died every time she sits on her front porch. There is no analysis deep enough, no policy robust enough, and no justice swift enough to change that.