Review: Strong Island

Director:  Yance Ford

In this bold documentary, Yance Ford scrutinises racial prejudices and segregation in the United States by bringing intense humanity to the subject, itemising a family tragedy by way of example.

In 1992, his brother William Ford, Jr. was murdered but his killer evaded justice. Now, twenty-five years later, Ford uses his abilities as a serious filmmaker to examine the case, presenting his family’s side and in the process underlining how white America silences and constricts the voices of the minority groups that they with live side-by side. Ford speaks direct to camera, confronting the audience, even asking those not ready for confrontation to leave before they’re upset by the story to be told. It’s ballsy, and it belays the long-earned fury inside.

With their father seeing decline across New York, he moved the family to Long Island where the clean suburbs gave the veneer of safety and tranquility. It was a move born from shrewdness rather than fear. The new homes built within towns like Central Islip, however, quickly revealed themselves to be segregated communities with their own unspoken boundaries, dictating the possibilities open to the Ford family through methods of reductive choice. The family found themselves slotted into a set of parenthesis that had been decided by the white peers that surrounded their new community. On April 7th 1992, mechanic Mark Riley shot William Jr.. Mark Riley was a white man. William Jr. was black and unarmed.

Ford openly makes this journey a personal one. His sister Kato speaks with love and fondness of William Jr., reminiscing on their shared love of comic books and Bruce Lee. These facts aren’t germane to the crime, but they underscore something so often undervalued in examinations of racially motivated crime; that these victims are not just numbers to be documented but people to be cherished and remembered with the same dimensions and complexities as everyone else. Strong Island uses the detail of memory as a weapon to carve open the viewer’s passive experience. This is not an abstract concept, it is one deeply rooted in feeling.

Because part of the central narrative is how black voices are ignored or even silenced, the process of filming this documentary through first hand experience and testimony of the family has relevance and becomes entirely justified. It is one-sided, but it is one-sided because the Ford family have been dismissed throughout this process. Strong Island redresses that balance, or at least attempts to.

There’s weariness to the story told. Ford’s mother Barbara expresses it as she retells her experiences, including her husband’s forewarning that justice would not find them. Black communities lack faith in their white protectors, and stories such as this are evidence as to why that is. The Fords moved initially from the south where law enforcement and the KKK were one and the same. The problem, therefore, is a powerful, authoritarian presence that no minority can trust to protect them. The idea that these horrendous prejudices are part and parcel of a nation’s decision-making process couldn’t be more relevant in the wake of Charlottesville and President Trump’s cowardly refusal to confront and condemn the rotten white supremacy that forms part of his base and perhaps part of his very soul. The road to correcting this state of affairs seems so long here as to be without end. That’s the kind of weariness we’re looking at here. It is, at times, a wilting heart.

But not wholly wilted. Ford is soft-spoken and his eyes wide and open. But his is not a passive face. It crackles toward the viewer. It speaks of a nation at large growing increasingly exasperated and intolerant of intolerance. Emblematic of a need for change that is evidenced in spilled blood and an indifferent response from the criminal justice system and the media. When he looks into the camera, he looks through it, right at you sitting in your seat. If the result is uncomfortable then that is wholeheartedly the intention.

The whitewashed case is its own injustice, but the story doesn’t end there as Strong Island also itemises the methods of intimidation used against the Ford family after the fact (prank calls, cars parked outside) not to mention the internal ramifications of a family left without justice. The corrosive effect of it. The trauma. And also the resilience (see Kato’s unwavering goal of working for the emergency services). What is it like to live with a tragedy that will not be recognised? To have that taken away from you? Ford conveys this through quiet and darkness, through patience and impassioned, articulate storytelling, both in the form of those family testimonials and via their visual accompaniments, each in service of the narrative’s mood. And it is a narrative, judiciously paced.

The slow and deliberate delivery of this tale is itself an opposition to ignorant bluster. By speaking calmly and quietly, Ford has the ability to knock down houses, one hopes.

Score:  

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