The anguished gaze and furious composure of bereaved sibling Yance Ford makes his film, Strong Island, a deeply personal essay on grief. Two decades after the fatal shooting of his brother, the restraint he employs in telling his family’s quest for justice leaves its mark.
“Are you uncomfortable?” Ford asks, framed in close up, addressing us directly across the fourth wall. In confronting an issue that has long plagued him and those close to him, Ford does not only assign guilt to the legal system that has so categorically failed his family, but also American society at large. In April 1992, William Ford Jr. was killed outside a Long Island garage by Mark Reilly. The facts of the case do not seem open to argument but the self-defence verdict attained has long denied them justice and the suggestion Ford – an eloquent, loving, courageous young man – was in some part responsible for his murder representative of a sickness at the heart of American society.
Placing his own very personal plight in the raging melting pot of race in America, Ford’s film exists on both a micro and macro level but does so quietly, in an understated, almost desperate manner which evokes just how hard it is for his – and the other members of his family – to talk about a loss that is almost impossible to articulate. His own testimony, and that of his mother, sister and one of William’s best friends, frequently in patiently and painfully held long takes, feels like it has been a long in the making.
The confessional element of the film – the rawness of which is at times hard to contemplate – allows for the confrontation of long-suppressed emotions. Unable to process what effect the death of their brother, son and friend had on them at the time it occurred in April 1992, amid the burning anger at the heart of this film there is also the slightest sense of healing. Though the interviewees never appear together in the film, a catalogue of family snaps and Polaroids placed tenderly, lovingly in a series of ever-enriching collages show the closeness there once was. This rich tapestry tells its own story, shining a light into dark memories but frequent fades to black mark a punctuation between thoughts, sentences, a pause for one big deep breath before this agonising recollection can continue.
Truths that have eluded the Ford family for more than 20 years slowly come to light; upon each return to a still frame image of the garage where William breathed his last breaths the sky is hued a slightly brighter shade of blue but we will never reach the dawn. The open-ended conclusion to Strong Island represents an ongoing struggle and a wound that cannot possibly heal, but one that leaves a scar to be remembered, respected and ultimately never repeated.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens