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Sundance Film Review: ‘Strong Island’

Variety logo Variety 2/4/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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Occasionally, you come across a documentary that’s conceived as a rarefied aesthetic object. Yet that doesn’t usually happen when the subject is a stark tale of injustice — in the case of “Strong Island,” the investigative chronicle of a young African-American man’s murder, and how the crime was swept under the rug by law enforcement. The filmmaker, Yance Ford, was one of the victim’s two sisters (he is now a transgender man), and he goes back to 1992, when William Ford Jr. was 24 years old and got into an altercation with Mark Reilly, a 19-year-old white mechanic who worked at a Long Island chop shop. Moments later, Ford was shot in the chest, and he died at the hospital.

The crime occupies the center of the movie, but in another way it doesn’t. For Yance Ford is also telling the story of his family — not just how the tragedy tore them apart, but who they were beforehand. In our rotating information-age culture, it’s one of the sad qualities of how we take in the news that even the sort of horrific event that makes us think “There but for the grace of God…” can come off as a glorified statistic. (Quick: How much do you know about the life of Trayvon Martin?) Ford’s intent as a filmmaker isn’t just to expose and protest the injustice of his brother’s murder. It’s to say: Behold what was lost. A life. A human being. A complex soul. A family’s equilibrium. Feel what was lost.

“Strong Island” is a cinematic memoir that accomplishes that goal magnificently. Ford, as a director, has adopted a subjective and engrossing style, built around the interpolation of old family photographs, that gives the film the flavor of a novel. After hitting us with the raw facts of the crime, as well as a phone call in which he attempts to connect with the original prosecutor and is stone-walled by her cold refusal to talk, Ford goes back into his family’s history to unveil a story of racism and optimism, of what hope and hardship and upward mobility meant to a working-class African-American family in the middle of the century.

Ford’s parents, Barbara Dunmore and William Ford, fled the Jim Crow South in the ’60s but wound up experiencing a different kind of segregation in the town of Central Islip, a predominately black Long Island suburb. It was very much a transitional moment: Within that enclave, they found harmony, community, and a kind of prosperity, but as soon as they wandered into the neighboring white sections of Long Island, the antipathy was so pronounced that the Ford children would sometimes end up running home. William Sr. toiled round the clock (literally) as a subway driver, and the hours ate away at his health; Barbara was an educator who started a program at Rikers Island to help incarcerated girls transition out of prison.

It was a life shadowed by pain, yet the filmmaker orchestrates this story to highlight how his family, through all the labor and prejudice, felt like they were breathing the air of freedom. Yance Ford’s own struggle, at the time, was with her sexual identity, which she felt compelled to keep hidden until she was at college. “Strong Island” uses photographs, diaries, music, and the sprawling testimonials of Barbara and the filmmaker himself to engross us in the lives of the Fords with a nostalgic detail — a three-dimensional feeling for how time and place intersect with social-cultural coding — that John Updike would have appreciated.

One of the strategies Ford uses to create the film’s heady emotional texture is to play with time: to present events out of order and withhold information with a storyteller’s cunning. That works superbly when it comes to luring us into the imaginative lives of his family members. It works less well — and, to be honest, feels a touch duplicitous — when it comes to laying out what happened the night his brother was killed.

For most of the film, we’re led to believe that William Ford, who was on the verge of becoming a police officer, was murdered in the most disgusting and arbitrary way possible. The movie certainly acknowledges that he showed poor judgment in allowing his car to be repaired at a skeevy auto shop by the same kid he’d had an accident with. On the night of the murder, which is evoked in detail by William’s football buddy Kevin Meyer, he wanders, unarmed, into the shop (having noted that Reilly had insulted his mother), and seconds later…boom. He stumbles outside and is laying in a pool of blood. We’re then told that the cops arrived on the scene and immediately began to treat William as the suspect rather than the victim. The killer was placed in a squad car without cuffs, and the Grand Jury refused to hand down an indictment. On top of that, William had informed Reilly that once he became an officer, he planned to try and close the shop down. The complete crime — if we include the absence of a trial as a dimension of the crime — reeks of racist conspiracy.

Yet it’s a full hour into “Strong Island” before we learn of a previous incident: the one where William heard his mother being insulted. He had come to check on his car, and once in the shop he wound up picking up a vacuum cleaner and throwing it; he also picked up a car door in a threatening manner (but didn’t throw it). What does this incident mean? It’s hard to say. Maybe it means nothing, but the degree to which Yance Ford delays introducing it leaves the audience feeling manipulated, and it raises a question: On the night of the murder, could William — possibly — have behaved in a threatening manner? Our answer after the first hour of “Strong Island” would be: No, to even ask that question is an act of racism. Our answer by the end of the movie is: We don’t know, but maybe it’s in the realm of possibility. The assailant’s plea of self-defense, which the audience deeply wants to reject as a racist lie, now sits in a murk of vagueness.

At Sundance, “Strong Island” received a Special Jury Award for Storytelling, and that feels right, since Yance Ford proves to be a memoirist of rare feeing and skill. The film’s overriding subject is grief, and the loss of faith that can accompany it. As African-Americans who were assimilated into the middle class of Long Island yet had to wonder, each day, how much they were truly accepted there, the Fords reacted to William’s murder as a horrifying deliverance: a confirmation of their worst fears. Twenty-five years of their agony is seared into the movie. Yet “Strong Island” is also a narrative of injustice, and on that level it feels incendiary yet incomplete. It’s a moving film, but it leaves a hole in one’s outrage.

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