Ania Ostrowska talks to American documentarian Yance Ford about his powerful debut Strong Island, available on Netflix
Character assassination is a common tool used against a suspect in criminal cases, aiming to sow a seed of doubt in the jurors’ minds or to confirm their prejudice with the view to convict. Yet the turn of events in Yance Ford’s debut feature documentary Strong Island, which premiered at Sundance this year and is now available on Netflix, beggars belief. We watch as the director’s brother, an unarmed young black man shot dead by a white car mechanic after a dispute over car repair in 1992, is turned into the prime suspect in his own murder. The man who fired the gun claimed self-defence based on fear of the allegedly intimidating ‘large black man’. Neither the gunman’s character nor his background has ever been scrutinised as the case never made it to trial, after a grand jury returned the verdict of “no evidence of criminal conduct” at the scene of 24-year-old William Ford’s death.
Mapping the grief of the Ford family after William’s death and probing the devastation it caused, Strong Island is not obviously concerned with the top-level investigation of institutional racism or policies affecting racial relations in the US, familiar to the audiences of recent documentaries like Ava du Vernay’s Oscar-nominated 13th. No news footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which erupted two weeks after William’s death, made it into the final cut (although the director toyed with the idea). Instead, Yance Ford’s film zooms in on a small piece of American soil, a community on the titular Strong Island. Interviewing Yance in Sheffield during the Doc/Fest this year, I confess I didn’t know “Strong Island” was a nickname for Long Island, NY. “I picked the title because it was easy,” says Yance. “It’s so much about that place, it came to me immediately. There’s no other title for this film.” I learn that it will be obvious not only for New Yorkers but also for hip-hop fans from all over the world, as many famous rap groups started there. For others, Yance hopes the title will provoke questions (“What is that?”) and make them watch the film or at least read about it.
Strong Island replaces abundant archival and news footage and expert talking heads often seen in the ‘big picture’ documentaries with intimate interviews with family members and friends. When interviewing his mother for the first time in 2008, Yance was just “figuring out how to be a filmmaker”, after ten years of working at PBS as a producer of their showcase POV documentary series. From that point, the film took eight years to be finished but I also want to know about the origins of the project, so I ask what made Yance start working on the film some 14 years after his brother’s death. According to Yance, it was “really simple”: “I decided to finally make Strong Island when the silence about my brother’s death became more of a burden than the prospect of making the film”.
What was far from simple was the decision to put himself in the film. In 1992, Yance was 19-years-old and about to start art college. “I was an art student”, he says, “I worked with his death in my practice.” The film was conceived as a counter-story to the official discourse created by the authorities and the media about his brother’s life and personality, painting William as “obese” and hence nothing short of a dangerous “black giant”. Yance asked family members and friends to contribute but did not want to appear on camera himself. The realisation that “murder was injustice that happened to my character as well” was a revelation and a turning point in deciding on the film’s final shape.
Yance figures in the film prominently, not just in the voiceover narrating the family history, as we behold the fragments of the Ford family photo and video archive, but mainly in the moving, at times painful speeches he delivers against the black background. Technical execution of those scenes was also challenging. Inspired by famous documentarian Errol Morris’ innovative interviewing technique, Yance constructed “a cheap interrotron” with the help of sound blankets and particular lightning. Staring at two camera lenses, Yance was being interviewed, at his own request never knowing the questions in advance, by an unseen person behind the partition. The interviews lasted between four and five hours each and took place over the period of four and a half years. These were “the most difficult conversations”, but also “most gratifying ones”. As a viewer I felt that the fusion of technology and content made Yance’s wish to “have a conversation with each person in the audience” come true.
Another crucial personal story remains understated in the film: that of Yance’s queerness and subsequent transition. It added to Yance’s grief that the summer William was killed, Yance had planned to come out to his older brother as his “full self”. At the end of a ten-year-long filmmaking process, Yance emerged as a trans person, but he explains to me that all references to his sexuality in the film are framed within the familial relations, and especially the “mandate” given by the parents to their three children, to love each other and stand by one another no matter what.
With the film’s success on the festival circuit and its Netflix presence, Yance is really excited about it opening the conversation about quoting fear as justification of homicide. Going back to his grandfather’s death in 1944, due to racial segregation of American hospitals at the time, Yance shows how easy it has been, and still is, to get away with killing black people in the US. “What is reasonable? How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” asks Yance. “Until we scrutinise this fear, as much as we scrutinise the lives of the dead, this system will never be just.”
Strong Island is available to watch on Netflix now.
All images courtesy of Netflix.
1. A building in the night, mostly dark but with the inside lit with artificial light, showing some kind of a workshop as there are tools inside.
2. A close up of a black person, wearing glasses and looking to the left and holding phone receiver to their ear. It’s director Yance Ford.
3. Three archival photographs, two black and white and one faded colour, showing black people, men and women. The photographs are handled by a pair of black hands in the frame.
4. Older black woman with short white hair and big rings in her ears, sitting in the kitchen and talking to the camera, gesticulating. it’s Barbara Dunmore Ford, Yance’s mother.