Director Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” is everything you would expect in a personal film that was six years in the making: a deeply intimate, achingly raw and stripped account of one family’s loss of a brother, friend and son. Spanning through the late 19th century when Jim Crow laws were still being implemented, members of the Ford family face discrimination and second-class treatment their entire lives, most critically during the trial for the murder of Ford’s brother, William. While the film succeeds in highlighting the failure of the judicial system when William’s killer is freed, this is not what “Strong Island” is exclusively about. The fear, anger, desolation and hopelessness expressed by the family members who are left behind and their stories told after years of silent grief are what makes this film heart-wrenching and genuine.
As the viewer learns about William through family pictures, home videos and personal accounts, he and his family are brought to life. Yet at the same time, the viewer can feel his absence like a gaping hole throughout the entire film. Jarring silences fill scenes of homes, parks and towns — places meant for sound, life and love. This desolate atmosphere gives the impression of something missing — someone who is not there anymore.
One of the most surprising decisions Ford makes in this film is to place himself at the forefront. Ford is severe and determined in his pursuit of knowledge. He guides the viewer step-by-step from the Ford family’s beginnings to William’s murder then retells it again and again. Gifted with a new sliver of information each time, the viewer is left questioning what justification remains. Ford role in the film helps tie the whole story together, while at the same time reveals how much he, along with the rest of the family, struggled with the loss of William family.
What is most surprising about “Strong Island” — a film created to investigate the murder of the director’s brother — is that the killer makes little-to-no appearance in the film. In the end, this does not matter. What is important about this mysterious figure is what he left the Ford family with — a cruel awareness that he was proclaimed innocent due to their second-class treatment. This awareness follows them throughout the film — it reminds them of their intolerant neighborhood, the police force that does not protect them and the jury who failed to stand for justice. The only description of the killer that Ford provides is “he looks like everywhere.”
Ford went above and beyond, along with all participating friends and family, to dig deep and share their stories on who William was and what he meant to all of them. “Strong Island” is a thought provoking film about how discrimination during the Jim Crow era still affects some people to this day. It is, however, the film’s raw, unapologetic honesty that makes the viewer truly see the desolate injustice of it all.
“Strong Island” opens in theaters and launches on Netflix on Friday, Sept. 15.
Email Alesha Bradford at [email protected].