Strong Island is a vulnerable, affecting documentary that illustrates what systemic racism looks like on a personal level. Filmmaker Yance Ford, who is black, shares his family’s experience after his 24-year-old brother was killed in 1992. Everyone knows the white man who shot William Ford Jr., but a grand jury decided not to convict his killer, claiming the shooting was justified due to self-defense.
Segregation and racism touches every aspect of the Ford’s lives, from Yance’s grandfather dying without treatment in a segregated hospital to the ultimate refusal to convict the man who killed his brother. Strong Island is deeply personal and specific, and Yance directly tells this story by including himself in the film.
The first scene opens on Yance asking for information about his brother’s death, but a prosecutor will not reveal anything. At first, the director sits facing away from the camera, backlit so that his figure remains dark against a bright light. When the camera cuts to a close up on his face, it’s an invitation into his story.
What follows is a journey of fact finding and emotional reveals that mirror what the family went through in their own lives. While voiceover helps explain what happened, the film shows hands (presumably Yance’s) holding and rearranging family photos, just as one would go through pictures of loved ones after a loss. The materiality of the photos signifies the physical items that are left behind after death. By piecing together the objects of his brother’s life, Yance tries to make sense of the events leading up to and following William’s death. To aid in his informational journey, Yance talks with family members and her brother’s friends. The mother is an especially wonderful subject, as her humor and emotion shine through in each interview while she reflects on her experiences.
During interviews, the camera often fades to black, acting as a period in between vulnerable sentences — it feels like closing your eyes when things become too much to bear. Strong Islands doesn’t shift away from vulnerability. Instead, the camera gets in closer, centered on the person speaking. Often, the film focuses on empty spaces — the rooms and house where William lived are shown empty, symbolizing the grief and emptiness felt after a loved one dies. Idyllic suburbs are shown with empty streets as an ice cream truck plays a song of innocence nearby. These peaceful images contrast sharply with the brutal story being told, emphasizing the innocence lost with William’s death and the danger that lurks in neighborhoods that, on the surface, appear safe.
But safety and fear depends on perspective and context. The film says that William wasn’t safe no matter where he went because his skin was black, while his killer was protected for being white. William’s killer says he was afraid of William, and a grand jury believes that’s why he was justified in shooting him. Strong Island asks whose fear matters in society, and whose safety.
Strong Island focuses on the story of William and his family, rather than the killer. By doing this, it allows the story of William’s life and personality to emerge from the perspective of people who loved him, rather than the perspective of the man who killed him. William’s life and ambitions are revealed through his journals, which show that he was a man going after a new job and new goals; a man who deeply loved those close to him.
After William’s death, a medical report catalogued his injuries, and which organs were affected by the gunshot wound that killed him. While his lung had a hole in it, his heart was deemed “unremarkable.” In a way, he is unremarkable because a black man killed without accountability is not a unique occurrence in the United States. But, Strong Island shows that William’s heart is remarkable, indeed.
Rae Nudson (@rclnudson) is a writer based in Chicago. She has written for The Billfold, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Esquire and Real Life, and has a degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Rae loves horror and anything with a strong visual point of view, and she often watches the same movie 100 times in a row.