Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” Is a Form of Justice | The New Yorker – The New Yorker
Since Trayvon Martin’s killing, we have become familiar with the
testimony of black parents concerning the talk they must have with their
teen-age sons, the one that tries to prepare them as young black males
for encounters with the police. It’s a talk rooted in black history, and
it cuts across class lines. The generational exchange that was once
portrayed in black drama as beaten-down old heads pleading with defiant,
reckless youth has been revised as a responsibility of black tutelage, a
passing on of necessary survival techniques. Don’t talk back; above all,
don’t run. It is heartbreaking to hear Ford’s mother reproach herself
for not having had that talk with her older son, for telling her
children to judge people by their character, not by the color of their
skin. She wonders how she could have been so wrong. “I did William a
great disservice in raising him the way we did,” she says. Perhaps she
means that she hadn’t warned him about what white people could get away
with when it came to their dealings with black people. Her son had
become frustrated as a customer, forgetting all about inherited white
resentment of black anger.
“Strong Island” tells either of a racist coverup or of the racism that
determined which questions the white investigators asked in William
Ford, Jr.,’s killing. His friend Kevin Myers, who was outside the body
shop when the shooting occurred, was prepared to testify in court that
the auto mechanic had had no reason to be fearful during either of his
two confrontations with Ford, even though Dunmore Ford herself had been
“disrespected” by the mechanic when she and Ford’s girlfriend came by to
check on the car. Ford and Reilly were never alone in the shop; Ford was
not armed, but during the first confrontation at the business he had
picked up and brandished a car door, to some laughter in the shop.
Detectives seemed only interested in asking the friend how much he
himself weighed, and how much Ford weighed—as if to gauge how much of a
physical threat they were. Early on in the film, Yance Ford says, “I am
unwilling to accept that someone else gets to say who Williams was. And
if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should
probably get up and go.” Racism is character assassination.
The family understood that what a D.A. tells a grand jury is crucial.
Outside of the courtroom, they were the targets of intimidation by an
unfamiliar car that often parked across the street from their house, and
by phone calls in the middle of the night, every night; nevertheless,
inside the courtroom they expected justice. What do you do when the
system fails you? The tragedy left the Fords in some deep way unable to
comfort one another. We get the feeling that parts of them retreated
inside themselves, away from family connection. William Ford, Sr.,
suffered a stroke the year after his son’s killing. He died before Yance
Ford began work on “Strong Island,” and his is the other absence mourned
in this film. Dunmore Ford died during the making of the documentary, an
event that becomes a part of story. Yance Ford’s documentary is about
trying to establish what happened the night that William Ford, Jr., was
killed, and what happened during the investigation, but also what
happened to the Ford family afterward. The easiest way to deal with
black people is to ignore them; the easiest way to cope with pain is not
to speak of it, even to the self.
The day he was killed, William Ford, Jr., had been a witness at a
high-profile trial. A white assistant district attorney in Brooklyn had
been shot during a holdup at an A.T.M., and it was William Ford,
Jr., who had chased and tackled the gunman. It would be an insult to
call this an irony. It’s impossible to ignore who the surviving Fords in
“Strong Island” are: Barbara Dunmore Ford, Lauren Ford, and Yance Ford
are gripping in everything they say. A summary of the case gives no
sense of the experience of watching “Strong Island,” in which the visual
narrative, put together with subtlety and refinement, unfolds from the
story itself. That story is handed from person to person, tied together
by the voice of Yance Ford, who, at different moments in the film, reads
from the last pages of William Ford, Jr.,’s journal, and from his
autopsy report. Here are home movies, sixteenth-birthday parties or
college graduations, and photographs from the nineteen-seventies and
eighties, Polaroids that have turned into a family archive. Those are
Yance Ford’s hands shuffling the photographs, laying them out, and Yance
Ford’s voice interrogating the past, face tightly framed. It would be
cowardly of the viewer to look away. The film is a form of justice.
“Strong Island” is so quiet, so dignified—if that is not too Booker T.
Washington a thing to say. There is no hint of Rodney King or the
gangsta rap of that time, 1992, the year of William Ford, Jr.,’s death.
Respectful attention must be paid, because grief is in the room.