In 1992, a 24-year-old black man named William Ford, Jr. was shot and killed by a white man in Long Island. His brother, Yance Ford, is the director of the new Netflix documentary “Strong Island,” which examines not just the murder but its aftermath including the failure of the criminal justice system and its effects on Ford’s family.
Yance Ford was a 19-year-old art student when his brother was killed. He always knew he wanted to make a film about his brother but it wasn’t until 2006 when the silence of his brother’s murder became greater than the fear of telling his story. And the deaths of black men in recent years, often caught on camera and shared on social media, added to the sense of urgency of the film.
"When I first started 'Strong Island,' we hadn't yet seen the cascade of cellphone videos of people losing their lives on social media. That changed over the ten years that it took to make the film," says Ford. "But there was always something that I knew was instructional. There was a larger lesson that I knew was a part of my family's story and a part of what happened to my brother that needed to be shared."
Ford stopped by The Frame to talk about the making of "Strong Island" and the impact of his brother's death on his family. Below are some highlights from the interview. To hear the full conversation, click on the player above.
On the connection of his brother's murder to the killings of other young black men in recent years:
One of the things that was really sobering about it was that my brother isn't extraordinary. He's actually a point on a line and that line of violence extends back into this country for generations. In my family, it extends back to my grandfather, being allowed to essentially die in a colored waiting room in South Carolina. I felt like it was important for a few reasons. Number one, to sort of concretize this experience of black Americans that is often not believed unless it's authenticated by someone else, and usually that someone is white. But I also thought it was important to lend a long tail perspective on the experience because people are able to rally around families in the immediate aftermath now. But I want people to think about what it means 20 years from now, 15 years from now. Tamir Rice's sister who was dragged away from her brother. His mother who couldn't bring herself to go home. These are the things that I want people to think about when they're also activating around these families.
Why "Strong Island" is not a typical true crime film:
It took a long time [to make the film] because of a few things. I needed time to unearth my family archive. Those pictures that you see in the film, it took years for me to sort of gather them. It took me awhile to get things like the autopsy report. It took me awhile to do things like Freedom of information law requests. "Strong Island" is not your typical true crime film. It's not actually about the uncovering of evidence or following leads that hadn't been seen before or any of that stuff. When I figured out that it wasn't actually going to be about what, that the film was actually going to be about why and what happened after, it really changed the way that I approached the film. It was a much richer experience as a result.
On the very personal aesthetic of the film:
Part of the challenge at the beginning of the film, is how do you tell a story that is, at the time, 15 years old, where there's no visual material? How do you conjure the past so that it feels urgent? How do you bring to life characters who have been dead for so long? How do you shoot things like absence and longing and loss? All of these are questions that I knew we had to figure out at the beginning. And that's what informed the visual or the aesthetic signature of the film.
Why Ford addresses the camera directly in the film:
I look directly at the audience. I wanted to have a conversation with each person in the theater. And I present, I think, the most complicated character in the film because I introduce information as the film goes along that continually challenges the audience.
How Ford's brother was considered a suspect in his own death:
What we see as the film goes on is the hyper-physicality of William. He's constantly described as a big guy when we know from his journals that he's starving himself to get a job as a corrections officer. To make weight to become a law enforcement officer. We know from the coroner's report that he actually wasn't a big guy and we know because the coroner uses the word obese that he was fat. So the fact that William sort of becomes in the recitation of this story, a version of the Incredible Hulk, is something that we have seen over and over again.
When Michael Brown looks like a demon to another human being, we know that this is a narrative that is generations old, that cost Emmett Till his life, that cost my grandfather his life, that cost my brother his life, and when I say, Dredge the river and you will find him or someone who could have been him, I'm talking about all of the people who disappeared because they might have looked at someone incorrectly. Because they might have committed the ultimate, sort of, mistake, which is to believe that you can be angry and black and safe in America at the same time.
On seeing the face of Mark Reilly, his brother's killer, in every white man he has ever met:
There is something about the anonymity of Mark Reilly. I have never seen him. I have not been able to find a single image of Mark Reilly. I do not know what he looks like. And it is the anonymity of whiteness that protects people from consequences of their crimes. And when I say that in the film, some people have said, Well aren't you reducing Mark Reilly to the same kind of stereotype that your brother was reduced to? And actually, no. Because at any moment in time, Mark Reilly and any other white man accused of this kind of crime– and we've seen it– they can talk about their fear, they can talk about what was racing through their minds, they can talk about the kind of person that they are in the world and what they hope to do as either citizens or as law enforcement officers. It doesn't matter. There are people who get to be three-dimensional humans in the United States and there are people who do not.
And so when I say that Mark Reilly looks like every white man I have ever seen, it's because there is this ubiquitous wall of whiteness that indemnifies people from their actions. And we have the statistics. It's not just me. It's not me waving a liberal flag and saying, This is wrong. This is happening. We have empirical evidence that people can either choose to believe or choose to ignore, but it doesn't mean it's not true.
On the effects of trauma on his family following his brother's death:
I think it's important to state that the first and primary trauma in the film is the failure of the justice system to deliver any kind of due process in this case for my family. When a No True Bill is returned, that's it. And unless you have a district attorney who is willing to re-present the case to a grand jury, which they can do, it's over. The person who has killed your loved one walks away and you are left with ... a void that was their life. And into that void rush all sorts of things -- guilt, blame, silence, shame. And they harden and metastasize over time and people play an actual physical toll.
The physical toll expressed itself in my father. A year after my brother died, he had a massive stroke and he was dead three years after that. And, honestly, one of the things that we don't talk about is the way that these traumas present to us a public health crisis. And the fact that my father died statistically within a window of time that many fathers who lose children to homicide actually die. The fact that it took a toll on my mother that took 20 years to fully express itself. The fact that for me and my sister that we are still here and alive is in part a miracle and in part because of the love that my parents really instilled in us. And that love sort of helped us together sort of move through the aftermath of this thing. But anyone who thinks that a single person loses their life in cases like this is fooling themselves.
A single bullet took out my brother, but it also took out my parents. And all of these other families who are losing loved ones now, they need care. They need support. Not just now or next year or five years from now. They need care for the rest of their lives.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Yance Ford, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.