A Portrait of Familial Grief in “Strong Island”

By Alex Cullina, Contributing Writer

On a spring night in 1992 on Long Island, twenty-four-year-old William Ford was shot dead.

The end of William’s life is the beginning of the story that his younger brother, director Yance Ford, tells in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Strong Island.” Last Thursday, BAMcinématek hosted a screening of the film that was followed by a Q&A with Ford and producer Joslyn Barnes.


There are facts that no one disputes about that night. William had gone with a friend to confront an employee at the shop about car repairs that had taken much longer than promised. During the ensuing argument, the employee, nineteen-year-old Mark Reilly, shot and killed William. Claiming self-defense, a grand jury declined to indict Reilly, a white man, for killing Ford, a black man.


“How do you measure the distance of reasonable fear?” Yance Ford asks in voiceover.


The story of Williams’s life and death is told with an almost painfully intimacy through interviews Ford conducted with his mother Barbara, his sister Lauren, and two of William’s closest friends. Ford himself also speaks directly to the camera, centered and so close to the lens you can see the pores of his skin.


In an ingenious device, a pair of hands shuffle and arrange the Ford family’s photographs on a clean white background, establishing a family history. Starting with Barbara’s father’s death from an asthma attack in the “Colored Only” waiting room, the story Yance tells of the Ford family is one of lives ended and dreams dashed by racism. But it’s also a story of obstacles overcome and burdens shouldered gracefully.


The film, Ford’s feature-length debut, has been almost a decade in the making, and the questions it asks about policing and race are timely. But this isn’t a sweeping indictment of the racism of the criminal justice system: “Strong Island” is intensely personal, examining the particulars of William’s death and its aftermath through his family’s eyes. Barbara remembers how the police’s first action in their investigation was to look into William’s background instead of his killers and the way the grand jury barely paid attention during her testimony. The failure of the system to bring William’s killer to justice, and the pain this brought to the Ford family that resonates through the intervening years is the film’s heartbreaking core.


Yance Ford is the first openly trans director to be nominated for an Oscar. During the Q&A, he discussed the shock and excitement he felt when the nomination was announced. He also talked about the vital role that filmmaking plays in our society, and why he felt he had to tell his family’s story.


“Silence will never keep you safe, silence will never heal you,” he said.


“Strong Island” is now streaming on Netflix.


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