New Directors / New Films which runs March 15th through the 26th is a festival of emerging international filmmakers here in NYC each year. We'll be covering a few titles including this unravelling of a Long Island murder in Glenn's weekly documentary spotlight.
“There’s one place that all the people with the greatest potential are gathered. One place. And that’s the graveyard. People ask me all the time: what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola? And I say exhume those bodies – exhume those stories.”
I thought of these words from Viola Davis’ Academy Awards speech last week while writing about the ABC queer rights miniseries When We Rise; thinking of all the men and women lost over the years to AIDS and what they could have done and who they could have been. I did not expect to be thinking of them yet again so quickly, but here we are. I thought of Viola’s words while watching Strong Island because exhume is exactly what first-time filmmaker Yance Ford has done with this film about the death of his older, 19-year-old brother, William, at the hands of a white man who the courts sort little interest in seeking justice for.
In 1992, following an altercation with an automobile body shop employee, William was shot and killed. Nobody denies who did it, but the white man never even made it to trial and the film gains heartbreaking levels of tragedy from hearing Ford’s mother and a friend of Williams who was there on the night detail their time in front of a grand jury, all of whom were white and many of whom didn’t even pay attention to their testimonies. “Mike Riley was responsible for William’s death”, Ford says in his own haunting, poetic and elegantly lit to-camera testimonials, “because Mike Riley shot William.” It’s so simple, and yet the jury instead preferred to do crossword puzzles.
Strong Island gets its narrative centre from William’s death, but Ford uses the film to detail much more than that. In many regards, the finished product is a sort of oral history of the Ford family detailing his parents’ courtship and escape from the Crow-era south, the family’s move to what was seen as a segregated, black suburban area of Long Island, William’s attempts at gaining employment as a prison guard at Riker’s Island, Yance’s own queerness (Ford is transgender, although he only uses the word “queer” in the film), the illnesses that have struck her parents, the lasting effects William’s death has had on them all.
This family history is aided by the low-key beauty that is found in how Ford has chosen to present archival material. Photographs are shown in stylish scrapbook format, often featuring Ford’s own hands delicately placing them in the frame against the textured ivory backdrop. It’s a small detail, but a particularly deft hand-crafted, personal touch and one that adds dimension to what is so often presented with little fanfare or artistry.
Unlike other films dealing with the deaths of young black men – I am thinking especially of something like Marc Silver’s 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets from 2013 – Ford doesn’t offer the death of her brother as anything other than a needless death that has had nothing but negative effects for all involved. There’s no grand godly plan, no public outrage with activism bringing attention to the issues of race in America. He died and the killer got away with it, while the family – as Ford puts it late in the film – in many ways died along with him, never able to full recover from the loss and the pain.
Slyly edited in a way that plays with timelines and repetitions, while also allowing her interview subjects to occasionally veer on tangents, Ford’s film is something much more intimate than just mere memoir of cinematic vigil. Strong Island is a rare beauty of a documentary film – a meditative wonder that offers an immediate declaration of directorial style and skill. Will Ford make another movie? It’s hard to tell considering how close he is to this one, but it would be a shame to not see her exhume the lives of others.