Yance Ford talks about his Oscar nominated documentary ‘Strong Island’

by Andrew Parker

While most of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature revolve around timely subject matter, none of them are as deeply personal as Yance Ford’s monumental Strong Island (currently available on Netflix for streaming). Watching Yance and his family recount the murder of a family member and a case that was frustratingly never brought to trial feels like watching someone exposing a still open wound while explaining to the viewer how and why the healing process has been impeded.

In 1992, when Ford was 19 and attending college, his brother, William Ford Jr., aged 24, was shot outside of a sketchy auto garage not far from the family’s home on Long Island. It was the result of an escalating situation that started with an auto accident involving a white tow truck driver, and ended weeks later with William getting shot when he attempted to retrieve his car from the shop. Yance’s mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford, couldn’t wait for William’s killer to be placed on trial for murder, but to the shock and dismay of the family, a grand jury – the last judicial step before a felony case moves to trial – found that there was no need to proceed further. The Grand Jury – shielded by a notoriously secretive process – found that there was sufficient reason to believe that the killer was intimidated by William, and that the shooting of the unarmed victim was justifiable, mostly because William was black, well built, and was found dead in a mostly white neighbourhood. He was treated more or less as a suspect and accomplice to his own murder by authorities who performed perfunctory investigation that never depicted William’s true character as a stand-up, sometimes heroic person who was loved dearly by his friends and family.

Yance Ford’s grief, anger, bafflement, and mistrust of a system that let his brother’s killer go free without consequence are all justified, and through interviews with his family and William’s friends, Strong Island asks audiences to get to know William Ford Jr. as a person, not merely as a victim. It’s a powerful look at systemic racism, modern day biases, and a broken American judicial system that couldn’t have been easy for Ford to make, especially when one considers that he places himself front and centre, often directly addressing the audience to voice his pain. Ford’s desire to show the real details of William’s life, how his family has suffered, and the shortcomings of a system that can still be skewed when it comes to race and privilege made Strong Island one of 2017’s best and most unflinching films.

That pain has led Ford’s film to become one of the past year’s most acclaimed efforts. Winning a Special Jury Award at Sundance last January upon its premiere, Strong Island would continue to play festivals around the world – including Hot Docs in Toronto last spring, where we were able to catch up with him – en route to the film’s premiere on Netflix back in September. When the Oscar nominations were announced earlier in the year, Strong Island’s recognition wasn’t only well deserved, but historic, as Yance Ford would become the first transgender male to be nominated for such an award.

We’re honoured now to share our interview with Yance Ford about his now Oscar nominated effort, conducted last spring in Toronto following a screening of Strong Island at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival.

Right off the top of the film, you direct address the audience in a close up, telling them that if they don’t like what you’re about to talk about to leave, which is a bold move that I wish a lot more personal documentaries did. Was that something that you always intended to include in the film or did that come later in the process?

Yance Ford: We placed that clip in the film originally when we brought the film to Copenhagen for the editing process. I said that during one of my interviews that took place over the course of production, and it was in response to a question I was asked. Robb Moss, [producer] Joslyn Barnes, and an author and friend, Joan Wickersham, conducted the interviews you see with me in the film, and I never knew what was going to be asked of me, and I always went into them completely blind. But there was always a need for a moment like that, mostly because I can tend to be very controlled and very stoic and there had to be something there to needle me.

That particular response came at the end of a conversation about respectability and politics within the black community, and the emergence of Black Lives Matter and how some people think that protesting in the streets isn’t an effective means of social change. Some people think that talking about how issues of race and violence still function today isn’t okay, and frankly how some white people are tired of hearing about race. Lots of white people are tired of talking about race. That response came out of that.

In the edit, when my editors put that right up at the front of the film, I fell in love with it right away. That’s what having a conversation with me is like. I loved that it started on a note that gave you a sense of who I was and who you were going to be talking to for the full 107 minutes. Granted, I haven’t seen every film ever made, but I was really attracted to the idea of starting the film with an invitation to opt out. I think that quite often, people do opt out of things and conversations that they find uncomfortable, and I wanted to be completely transparent about the fact that this was going to be a challenge and that if you weren’t up for it, you could just go. We follow that with a scene that looks directly at the garage where my brother was killed, just to give them more time to get up and leave if they needed to.

I can think of fictional films that start off with characters addressing the audience – like Spike Lee’s Inside Man or the animated Kubo and the Two Strings – where they say if the viewer isn’t going to pay attention, then they shouldn’t bother watching, but weirdly I’ve never seen a documentary do something like that, especially since that’s the one kind of film where saying something like that could be the most useful and honest.

Yance Ford: (laughs) Well, I’m definitely not your normal kind of documentary filmmaker. And I love Inside Man, so I will take that comparison as a compliment. That’s a fun, well made movie.

But I also want Strong Island to function like a conversation between me and the audience. That’s why I speak directly to camera. I don’t like the idea of the audience being pushed off to a forty-five degree angle to watch two people talking. I think that this story is best told with a direct address to camera, so that each person in the audience could feel like I was speaking directly to them. And I think it’s working, because people have been approaching the film and how they talk to me about it less like they were watching a film and more like they were having a conversation. And I hope that this is a place for more great conversations to start.

The film really comes across as something that I would show to something as Exhibit A against someone arguing that they “don’t see race,” or that we somehow live in a post-racial society. Although you’re making a personal film that’s tied directly to your experience, was the larger picture of what your brother’s murder means to a larger conversation also on your mind as prevalently?

Yance Ford: You know, what was on my mind constantly was how I could tell the story most effectively with all of these different nuances that were part of the experience and to show how these parts expressed and manifested themselves over a lengthy period of time. Of COURSE, I know and embrace the fact that this film is in the conversation and coming out into the world after Black Lives Matter has pushed forward and made it possible to ignore that there’s so much racial bias in the way people use or lose their lives.

It’s a very good example if you tell someone to change the race of every person in this scenario to something different. Make sure you keep the timeline straight. Make sure that you remember that my brother met Mark Reilly twice, once when they had an argument, and William made a fool of himself where both of them were laughed at by a garage full of people, and the second time when he wasn’t even talking to him, didn’t know he was there, and he wound up dead. If that had been a young black man shooting a young white man, where do you think he would be? That’s an easy way to see race.

The fact is that people choose not to see race because they aren’t comfortable accepting that they – perhaps via their own passivity – have been complicit in the way that race has come to form our policing, and our criminal justice system, and our educational system, and the way that we are segregated as communities, and the way that segregation is actually getting worse and not better as we continue into the twenty-first century. “Not seeing race” is “not seeing racism” even though it’s all around you, and a lot of that, perhaps, is because it can be overwhelming processing all of that. Or maybe it’s because you don’t care and you don’t want to care. Either way, this film is going to be really straightforward about how it plays out.

Segregation is something that you also lay out very early in the film, when you show a map of Long Island and show that there are black communities that exist largely only in pockets. Do you think that if your brother’s murder happened anywhere else in New York City that the outcome of the police investigation and the findings of the Grand Jury would have been any different?

Yance Ford: No. With the races of the protagonists being what they are? No.

You have to remember that 1991 is the first time that we as a nation saw something like the Rodney King beating tape. That was one year before my brother’s murder. Then, every single person who watched that tape saw a different thing. Those cops got off from those serious charges by telling people that what they saw wasn’t actually the full picture. What they were alluding to was the danger inherit in Rodney King’s “person.” Right? So they were actually referring to the fact that Rodney King as a sentient being was dangerous because he was black and male.

And you hear the same thing repeated in the civil suit testimony against [Ferguson, Missouri police officer] Darren Wilson, who states that Mike Brown had no other weapon other than himself. The weaponization of black bodies is something that goes WAY back, and it’s something that we’ve seen in urban settings, rural settings, in the South, in the North, in the UK, in Germany, in Italy, and in all these places where ultimately it boils down to someone saying, “I was scared of this person because of who they are.”

Whether what happened to my brother occurred in the suburbs or in the city, it would have been the same outcome. Interestingly, there was an article in The New York Times recently about people looking back on the “forgotten effects” of segregation, and the wording of it as “forgotten effects” baffled me because if you were to go to someplace like Flint, Michigan, those effects are very clear. If you go to the south side of Chicago, the effects of segregation are really clear. The people impacted by segregation haven’t forgotten about segregation. The segregators have forgotten about segregation because they have great public schools, they don’t have lead in the water, and they don’t have to worry about gun violence.

The demographics of the community where I grew up have shifted. It was predominantly new, African-American families when I was growing up, and now it’s predominately Latino families moving into that community now. Those families face the rising threat of people saying “we’re gonna build a wall,” or they’re being told to “go back to Mexico,” and there a new kind of vitriol. That vitriol is in the soil and fabric of Long Island. The same kind of segregation keeps their kids in schools that are being pressured by gangs, like MS-13, and where they’re graduating kids with third grade reading levels, and the city can still pat the teachers there on the back and pay them among some of the highest salaries in the state. So segregation is alive and well, and it’s working to create a permanent underclass of people of colour.

Yeah, there are some who think they have moved on from segregation and now live in brownstones and townhouses that feel like they aren’t even in the city, but they are totally fooling themselves. They think that segregation isn’t real and doesn’t have lasting effects, and that’s delusional thinking.

In the film, your sister says that she never wanted anyone to see how upset she was about the death of your brother, which came across to me kind of like the grieving equivalent of how some people of colour and lower class peoples will plead guilty to a crime they didn’t commit because it’s easier than fighting a charge. It seems easier to bottle it up and show no emotions than to let it all out. Was doing a film like this so much more of an emotional release because of that sense of segregation and distance from the justice system?

Yance Ford: The repression of emotion that my sister talks about in the film is something that I think is more tied to the onslaught of sympathy that comes from people who I’m sure are well meaning, but otherwise have little idea how to help families in distress. I think for her that was a lot more personal. I think you’ll find people who are more concerned with their parents’ well-being in a situation like this. I know that’s what I did. I don’t think it’s necessarily, in my sister’s case, tied to the criminalization of William’s character after his own murder.

But I do think that across the board, or at least there was at the time, a complete lack of services that could be of use in communities like ours in terms of mental health support, community support, and any kind of therapeutic services for families that suffer this kind of loss.

And especially for siblings, which is really different from parental loss. My sister’s not so much trying to present a “don’t put your business in the street” point-of-view as much as I think she was trying to protect her parents, which was the same thing I did for many, many years by not speaking about things I knew to be true.

People really need to be educated better about how to support people in their community that are going through a crisis like that. And over the past two days being here in Toronto, the number of people who have talked to me about losing a loved one due to murder, suicide, almost being beaten to death, or any number of horrible things that people open up to me about, they’ve been from people of multiple races. This problem of access to support that comes out of the film that we’re talking about is one that isn’t isolated to communities with large populations of people of colour, but when these things happen, you’re put into this silo of your home, having to work to support your family, trying to keep a marriage together, and so many other strings that need to be tied between agencies, neighbours, friends, and employers to provide a net for people who suffered a loss like this. There should be a safety net for people to fall into so they can safely say, “I’m not fine.”

But there are also people who aren’t comfortable with silence, and a lot of times people who are dealing with this kind of loss just don’t feel like talking because they don’t know what to say. It’s hard to say anything. My sister is a fantastic, fantastic person who has come so far in her life, and she’s so happy now to see that the story of my brother, his life, and the life of our family is being told.

I’m sure a lot of people will focus on a lot of the darker aspects of the film because they’re rightfully bringing up a lot of things that need to be talked about, but I did want to ask you about the love that your family has for one another, something that makes the film all the more heartbreaking, but also really warm. Despite the tragedy of the film, the love within your family makes it seem like a safe place to have these conversations. A lot of the time, and even in the darkest, angriest of moments, your mother in particular has this confidence and warmth that always shines through. How important was it to you as a filmmaker and as someone who lived through this that people didn’t overlook the love you have for each other?

Yance Ford: I often wonder if this is going to be the first time for some people that viewers will see a real life, loving black family, and I’m sure that for some it will be. Is this going to be the first time they see their families reflected back at them? Sure. I get so many people thanking me for showing that black families aren’t the most homophobic families on the planet, which is a stereotype that gets hung on the black community all the time, and that I don’t think is a true one. My mother had uncles who were “that way,” and she was born in 1942, and those people weren’t thrown out of the family or ostracized.

The mandate that my parents gave us to love each other that gets brought up in the film was very real. They said that our principle job in life was to love each other because love had sustained them when they were young. You have to remember that my mother started falling in love with my father in the seventh grade, so by the time they had their first kid, love had done so much for them. Love took them out of the Jim Crow south and into an apartment in Brooklyn that they loved. Love is what puts a smile on your face. They passed down that love for each other and their love for us, and as a result, they gave me a wonderful relationship to my brother and sister as a gift.

I do think that people need to see that, and that we need to see more of that. We need to see that black families aren’t without love or defined by dominance or all these pathologies that society tends to place on black families without actually going in and asking these people about their lives. It has to stop, and I think Strong Island can really help that.

This is my family, warts and all, and at the end of the day, we are no less loving or deserving of justice than any other family.

Strong Island is now available to stream on Netflix.

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