Strong Island

Nearly 26 years ago, Yance Ford’s brother William was murdered in Central Islip. It was April 1992 and William, a black 24-year-old teacher, was confronted by an auto body shop owner about the quality of a car repair. The interaction turned deadly when Mark Reilly, a white 19-year-old mechanic on the premises, shot William once in the chest, killing him. Later that same year, an all-white grand jury concluded that no crime had been committed, leaving Ford, his parents and younger sister silently devastated.

Ford has spent the last decade examining his family’s muted implosion. The result is Strong Island, a documentary that might sound like a true crime film, but is instead a cinematic memoir that grapples with race, lingering pain and the complicity of silence set in the background of Long Island.

In January 2017, Strong Island premiered at Sundance Film Festival, where it won a special jury prize for storytelling. Two months later, Netflix acquired the documentary’s worldwide rights. It premiered in September and by the end of the year was shortlisted for an Academy Award. Prior to the film, Ford, a transgender man, worked as series producer for the PBS showcase POV where his curatorial work helped garner numerous Emmy nominations.

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You started working on the film 15 years after your brother’s murder. What was the impetus to finally tell the story?
I attended the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 where I had a conversation with a friend/mentor about career paths. At the time I had been at POV for four years and I was a little bit restless. I told this person that I have a story to tell, which led to me telling her about my brother. I said, “I think I need to make a film about it.” Her response was, “What are you waiting for?” I had been watching filmmakers take risks for so many years, I realized that I don’t have the luxury of waiting to tell this story anymore.

How did the film’s trajectory change during the decade it took to make it? 
When I first began my goals were simple: uncover why my brother’s murder went unpunished and look at what injustice lived out over time had done to my family. Beginning with intimate conversations with my mother about why she and my father did not do more after William was killed, I moved on to the detective for the Suffolk County Police Department and former assistant district attorneys who investigated the case, asking for any bit of information they could remember, any fact they could share. I learned that when a grand jury declines to press charges and the accused goes home, the official record is permanently sealed. The only document available to me was William’s autopsy report. Then when my mother gave me William’s diary, my line of inquiry shifted. In those pages was a William I had never known. In order to make the film, I had to stop keeping secrets, stop keeping William’s secrets and open the door.

What did William’s diary reveal?
I found a young man who was in search of himself, who knew what he wanted but was trying to figure out how to get there. My confident older brother wanted to make a life and career for himself so badly that he starved himself to make weight in order to become a corrections officer. I also discovered that he expressed himself and processed the world through poetry. I got to know him as an artist and a complex human being, not just my brother.

During the production of the film you hit the pause button several times, why?
My mother died out of the blue in November 2012, I paused production after that. During the months that passed and into the next year I was trying to figure out how to move forward in the film with my lead character dead. I was also questioning why I hadn’t interviewed her more often, why I had taken her presence for granted. I also started to think about the kind of film I needed to make, not the one I could make, but the one I needed to make now that my mother was dead. The stakes were that high. We resumed working in April of 2013. All of 2014 I was both cleaning out my mother’s house and directing shoots of me cleaning out my mother’s house. I was determined to get it emptied out by my brother’s birthday, October 27th.

This was a year when I had my head down—dealing with 40 years of stuff and directing simultaneously. That time was one of great sadness and introspection for me, but the thing that it did make really clear was that I had to get Strong Island right! There was something I couldn’t put my finger on about the cut. Then in April 2015 I called a timeout on post-production knowing I had solo work to do and thinking about the film as a whole. Who was it for? Was it what I wanted? What had I been afraid to include?

What had you been afraid to include?
My sister. I’m really protective of my sister and I was trying to avoid what happens to people who are in documentaries. All of the sudden people see the film and start reaching out to the film’s subjects.

But you did include her, what became the hardest part of filming Strong Island?
I had to shoot my mother in the ICU while she was dying. That was an impossible moral dilemma. I’d say that 2012 to 2014 were the most intense two years of my life. I lost my mother, I moved my sister to a new home and I lost the [Central Islip] house. People ask me at film festivals if it’s difficult to talk about the personal issues I bring up in the film. No. That’s not the difficult part. The difficult part was having your life shift tectonically while shooting your life shifting tectonically.

Most of the film was shot at your childhood home in Central Islip. How did it feel to go back to Long Island?
Hard. My brother died about five blocks from my house. The radius of my life in that town and radius of my family’s history in that town encompassed a place where my brother died. It’s still a source of real conflict for me. I miss my neighbors and I miss the neighborhood but I don’t miss Long Island. It’s a very segregated place. The corruption of politics is so naked and easily seen by everyone that it was really tough going back.

Do you consider Long Island a main character in the film?
Definitely. Because the system that produced a No True Bill (a grand jury’s refusal to indict) in my brother’s case is the same system that has the police department under a federal consent decree for essentially ignoring 911 phone calls from Latino residents.

The themes of this film are as relevant today as they were 26 years ago. What are your thoughts on the current state of race relations and police misconduct?
Releasing Strong Island now is like straddling the past and the present. Strong Island was in production before the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, before cell phones and social media brought the deaths of unarmed black people literally into view. Our criminal justice system has a serious fear problem. It was evident 25 years ago when my brother was killed yet I can pick up the paper today and read the same narrative spun by someone else in an attempt to justify what is unjustifiable. We need to interrogate this fear now more than ever.

Has finishing the film and releasing it been cathartic?
It has not been my experience that anything has been cathartic about my brother’s murder. Justice is a place that my brother’s case will never arrive at, but I do feel satisfaction in knowing that my brother’s story isn’t just going to disappear and fade into history with thousands of others anonymous black people who have died.

Did you learn anything about yourself while making this film?
I’ve learned that I’m really lucky. I’ve learned that my intensity is sometimes a gift and sometimes a burden. I’ve learned that I’m a perfectionist. Not to say that Strong Island is a perfect film—I don’t think I’ve seen a perfect film—but Strong Island is absolutely the film I wanted to make.