It happened only a few blocks from his home. On the night of April 7, 1992, William Ford, a young African American man not long out of college, drove to a local auto mechanic’s shop with a friend to check in on the condition of his car. A few days prior, they had been in a minor accident with Mark Reilly, a white employee at the garage. Instead of calling their respective insurance companies, Reilly suggested he could fix the car and avoid any hassle. They all agreed. But since then, no update had been given about the car. Ford had appeared at the repair shop once before, angrily inquiring about the damages, and when his mother made her own appearance not long after, Reilly yelled at her. There were tensions, and something felt wrong; there were rumors that the garage was actually a chop shop that stole cars, broke them down, and sold the parts. When William arrived on that April night, he wanted and demanded answers. Instead, he was shot through the chest, and died almost instantly.
The tragic event that unfolds over that night, spilling into the following months and years, is where Yance Ford begins his documentary Strong Island. It was 25 years ago that his his brother William was killed, and he is looking for his own answers: What happened on that night? Why did the case not go to trial? What role did he play in his brother’s death? As William’s identity was taken from him, Yance’s identity as a queer person of color was being formed, and he wonders how they might have helped each other through times of pain. These questions are asked boldly, with Ford portrayed in close up, looking directly at the viewer. “If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions,” he tells the audience toward the beginning of his film, “you should probably get up and go.”
These questions set the investigative and personal tone of the film, which is built around intimate conversations that build slowly, the weight of their revelations illuminated over time. Ford can be heard behind the camera, and often talks directly to the viewer on screen with an unnerving stare and direct, concise words. He wants to be clear about the specifics, about what happened and why. But the stare is also a pose, and its fragility reveals itself: so much is unclear, lost to memory, will be forever undefined. Those questions, he knows, can never truly be answered.
What can be done, however, is to give humanity back to the life that was stripped of it through senseless murder. When William was killed, everything stopped; lives continued to be lived, but there was a missing piece, a part of the story removed too soon. Death has a tendency to define us, to override everything that came before. What Ford is trying to do with Strong Island is make his family’s history visible once again, to give it the clarity and focus that were taken away. Through this process, the wounds of the past might be healed.
Ford starts at the beginning: His mother was a teacher who started an education program for female inmates on Rikers Island, and his father was a subway conductor. After having children, the two decided that the living spaces were too small in Brooklyn, so they followed many families out to Long Island. But in Central Islip, where they found a home and would spend many of the following years, what they encountered didn’t match the idyllic suburban dream they had envisioned. “It was essentially moving back into a segregated community,” Ford remembers about his neighborhood, a small area of the town made up primarily of African-American families. A world comes into focus that explains how the killing of an innocent black man could happen with no consequences. This is frustrating but not surprising; the details are more tragic because they are so familiar.
William, we find out, was protective of his siblings and fiercely loyal to his friends. Gregarious and athletic, he was a charismatic troublemaker who after high school struggled to find his place in the world. But he never had the chance. Yance never had the discussions he wanted to have with William, and the sense of what could have been, of the failure to change things when they could have been changed, haunts the film. A few details that come to light toward the end of Strong Island make what happened to William harrowingly ironic, and the end of his life even more tragic. Was there something that could have been done to change what happened on that night? If one detail had been shifted, would their lives be different?
The search for meaning in these questions is ultimately fraught. The root of the murder of William Ford is the detail that has always been there, front and center, refusing to budge. Toward the end of the film, Yance’s mother tells him that she had taught William from a young age to see character and not color. “Many, many times I’ve wondered — how could I be so wrong?”
Strong Island screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on March 19 and at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on March 20 as part of the New Directors/New Films series.