Overview: One man looks at the traumatic event that changed his family forever, his brother’s murder. Netflix; 2017; Rated NR; 107 minutes.
A Collective Grief: In the final minutes of Strong Island, filmmaker Yance Ford’s exploration into his brother’s murder, Ford asks “What are the contours of fear?” According to his brother’s killer, fear is what motivated him to shoot him William Ford, Jr. during an altercation at an auto body shop in 1992. His brother’s killer, a then 19-year old white auto mechanic named Mark Reilly, earns little attention from the filmmaker within the narrative. It’s a decision both personal and ingeniously calculated, in that fixes our perspective decidedly on the victim and his family. Yance has never even seen Reilly’s picture. What does he look like, he wonders aloud at one point—any white person, he concludes. Strong Island doesn’t trace the contours of fear for long. Instead, it’s more interested in the contours of grief. In this story, which spans the family history of multiple generations, trauma inflicted on black Americans is impersonal and systemic. Yance and William’s mother, a forthright and lyrical speaker, talks of the death of her own father in her childhood, forced to endure a too-lengthy wait for the treatment of an asthma attack because patients from the ER’s white waiting room were seen before those from its black waiting room.
The nickname “Strong Island” may just be an affectionate way to refer to perennial underdog Long Island, but in its intentional titling, Ford hints at a more universal meaning; His family moved from the city to escape violence, an intentional marooning that left them further isolated within a largely black neighborhood. In a house intended to be a safe space, individual family members grieved Michael separately, stoically. Islands of grief, unable to traverse the space between one another. It took me some time to warm to Ford’s film. I had to stop several times—be warned, this is a difficult story—only to come back to it knowing I needed to hear more. I watched the first third worried that in spending so much time telling the story of his family, from his mother’s childhood to that of his siblings, that Ford was constructing some kind of respectability defense of his brother; one that elided his intrinsic value as a person by trumpeting his righteousness. I was so wrong. In Strong Island, a film centered ostensibly on the search for justice for one man, instead we get an education in multi-generational black trauma. To be clear, the depiction of trauma for trauma’s sake (as I argued earlier this year with Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit) is not enough anymore. If as a viewer you’re not taking something away, you’re only taking, and in doing so, perpetuating the trauma.
My one minor issue with the film’s narrative is that I had to do some personal research to understand more about the Grand Jury process, a peg on which a lot of Ford’s mother’s anger centers, and one which has larger implications with regard to treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system. It won’t take anything away from the story to educate yourself (if needed) on this point ahead of time (a quick Wikipedia perusal will work), or look up what it means for a District Attorney to “slow-walk” a case it presents to the Grand Jury. Ford never explicitly says that this is what happened in her brother’s case, but the phone calls with police and the D.A.’s office certainly make it feel this way.
A Personal Pain: Despite its challenging subject matter, Strong Island makes for a lovely film to watch. Many of its visuals were presented in a collage-like and multi-dimensional way. I wasn’t surprised to find that in addition to years of work for PBS’s Emmy-winning POV series, that Ford is also a sculptor. There’s an artistic eye at play that is often absent in the world of documentaries which often shares with journalism a prioritizing of story above all else, including style. Unexpected framing and lovely, slightly off-center angles made watching the film feel like flipping through someone’s photo album. It’s also worthy of note that fitting for a film so centered on interrogating the fear of black skin, that there is a loving and reverential quality to the way skin is captured here; Ford’s hands busting up a bag of ice for his mother after her surgery, his fingers skimming the edges of photos, and most achingly, the creases of his face as he cries on the phone to his partner after contacting the detective who worked his brother’s death. It adds a personal and visceral quality to the viewing.
Like its Netflix predecessor, the excellent The Keepers, Strong Island will appeal to your sense of justice. Where it diverged for me was that it also appealed to my sense of self, asking me to interrogate my own biases and assumptions. This film makes for a difficult journey, but one that makes the distance between us—our islands of self—shorter if you’re willing to try.
Overall: Strong Island elevates the true crime genre by focusing not on the crime but on its aftermath and the way fear is stoked and perpetuated to deadly consequences. It is a raw and meditative look at what fear-driven violence does to the individual, the family, and the culture.