Made over the course of 10 years, the riveting documentary Strong Island, now streaming on Netflix, chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography, and tragedy — from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death. It is the story of the Ford family: Barbara Dunmore, William Ford, and their three children, and how their lives were shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America. In April 1992, on Long Island, William Jr., the Ford’s eldest child, a black 24 year-old teacher, was killed by Mark Reilly, a white 19 year-old mechanic. Although Ford was unarmed, he became the prime suspect in his own murder. This deeply intimate and meditative film was made by Yance Ford, one of William Jr.’s younger siblings who is now a transgender male director. Strong Island asks how people deal with grief when it is entwined with historical injustice, and how we all grapple with the complicity of silence that can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice. I sat down with Yance Ford in Los Angeles to talk about this very personal and timely documentary.
Danny Miller: I was incredibly moved by this film. And I think I was only about three minutes in when I realized that I’d fallen in love with your mother. Did she always speak in that slow, measured way that makes you want to hang on her every word?
Yance Ford: (Laughs.) Yes, that was my mother, and that is absolutely the way she always spoke — the cadence of her voice and the speed was very unique. It was wonderful, but when you’re growing up with that person as your mother, you get to a point where you’re like, “Come on! Speed it up, I’m late for work, what are you trying to tell me?!” But she was a remarkable woman, and my father was a remarkable man. Luckily, I always saw myself as reflected through my parents, I didn’t ever turn to the media to affirm my existence or to reflect back at me who I was.
I told you at the screening last night how moved I was by your sister’s participation in the documentary. I was surprised when you said that she hadn’t seen the film yet and may never watch it. Is it just too painful for her to revisit the story of your brother’s death?
When I asked her to be a part of the film, my sister said yes immediately, just like my mother. My sister knew that I was making this film so that our brother’s story would finally be told in full. But my sister also knew that she didn’t necessarily have the need to become any kind of a public figure. She wanted to help fill in the many blanks that I had of that time and talk to me for the first time about it. Beyond sitting down and sharing her experience in those interviews, however, she doesn’t really see the need to screen the film. But she’s grateful for everything that’ it’s doing in the world. She keeps track of the press and I talk to her every day. She’s super proud of me.
The relationship between you and your two siblings seemed so wonderful. I love the story your sister tells about the time when she was young and feeling very insecure and your brother told her how pretty she was and really made her see that for the first time. I think that was when the tears first started coming for me during the course of this film.
My parents raised us to be loving friends, I’m so grateful for that. And with the age difference between my brother and sister, he recognized the awkwardness of adolescence and just naturally wanted to help her through that. He wasn’t a perfect person, none of us were, but I do think that he was a very good older brother. I had never heard that story until my sister told it to me on camera but I wasn’t surprised. I remember after one of our screenings at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, my brother’s friend Kevin was there and he told me, “Yance, by the way, William knew you were gay.” And I was like, “Excuse me?”
Oh wow, and up until that point you thought he had died not knowing that about you?
I had no idea, we had never discussed it. But Kevin said, “Yeah, he told all of us. He said, ‘Listen, my sister’s gay so back off, I’m taking her to the prom.’” So it was only in April 2017 that I had confirmation from my brother’s best friend that he knew and that all of his friends knew. And none of them ever treated me any differently. I think it was the equivalent of affirming my sister’s beauty the way he told his friends, “Listen, my sister’s gay. Deal with it.”
It’s just so heartbreaking to learn about William and imagine the life he would have had if he had not been murdered. He was such an amazing guy. When you’re working on a project for so long about such a painful incident from your family, is it difficult to navigate through that pain? Are you constantly thinking, “Okay, now William would be 42, now he’d be 47” and all the other what-ifs and speculation about how all your lives would be different?
You know, I learned so much about my brother in the context of making this film. I had his journals and got to read about all of his aspirations, what he hoped for in his life. I was completely taken aback by how thoughtful and rich his internal life was, but also I was saddened by how little of each other we had been able to know as adults. With any homicide, it’s very difficult not to mark time. When I was 24, when I reached the age of my brother’s death, that was a huge year for me. When I was a year older than him, it was a huge year for me. He would have been 50 years old this year, and that’s huge because his best friends are all celebrating their fiftieth birthdays, and they’ve got kids and grandkids. I know that our family would have been a different constellation had he not been murdered, and that’s the difficult part.
The injustice of your brother’s killer not even having to go to trial is just so shocking and appalling. But sadly, one that we’ve seen over and over since then.
My brother’s story is one of the many failures of the criminal justice system. And remember we’re talking about 1992 — two weeks before the Rodney King verdict and Los Angeles exploding. During that time there was no social media. When we were going through that we had the support of our community, we had the support of all the people who signed petitions, of our friends and colleagues, but that’s it. There was no Twitter, there was no Facebook, there was no way to galvanize a nation and get people behind you. So in the absence of that and with the failure of the system, what happens is that there is this silence that descends. And ultimately that silence becomes about protecting each other from your own pain.
You have to continue to live, even in the face of such injustice.
Yes, you have to continue to live on this planet, you have to continue to navigate the racism of everyday life in America as a black person. You have to continue to remember who your son was, who your brother was, you have to hold on to the knowledge that if the races were reversed in this case, that killer would now be in jail.
No question about it.
But the silence was finally broken in the making of this film which gave us a chance to talk to each other about this for the very first time. It was especially important to my mother that this story be larger than our family. She lived through so many killings. I remember after Trayvon Martin was killed, my mother heard the tapes and she watched the trials. She’d say, “Okay, now they’re going to start talking about X, Y, and Z” and it was like clockwork, exactly as she said. It was a familiar pattern to us.
Did you ever think of exploring more about your brother’s killer, Mark Reilly? Did you consider showing his face in this film?
It was never going to be about Mark Reilly. When I first began the film I did work with some private investigators to try to locate him, but they were unable to locate any images of him. He does not exist in social media as far as I was able to find out. But I soon realized that Mark Reilly was not a character in this film, he was simply a catalyst for a series of events. My investigators did locate a handful of Mark Reillys and I called one and then said to myself, “What am I doing?” I have nothing to say to him and he said everything he could possibly say to me and my family when he shot my brother. If he wants redemption or forgiveness or to apologize then he can go seek out whatever God he worships and do it there.
When you were making this film there was no way you could have known that it would be released at a time in this country when abject racism was coming to the surface in a way that has shocked many of us, and from the very highest levels.
Well, I think there are some Americans who find what’s going on now unthinkable. And there are other Americans, and I count myself among them, who are not at all surprised — the fact that there is this kind of neo-Confederacy that has never left. The folks selling “The South Shall Rise Again!” buttons at flea markets or flying the Confederate flag — the fact that those folks have never gone away is not a surprise to me. I think that there’s an entire segment of our country who just don’t’ understand that the racism that my parents grew up with simply got passed down to the children and those folks live all over the country now. And the whole myth of millennials not being as prejudiced as the generations who came before them — well, we know that’s been blown out of the water.
Some of us were lulled into thinking that things were different because of the past eight years.
Yeah, some of us were lulled into complacency during those years. I never believed in the the notion of this country being “post-racial.” I think a lot of people took that off-ramp so that we could stop dealing with the troubled history of our country.
And now there’s been a major accident on that off-ramp — with fatalities.
Exactly. And we’ve got to sort it out. We are right back to where we started. The foundation of this nation was built on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. And the foundation of our policing is based on capturing runaway slaves. The containment and control of black people in America is as old as the country itself. And we certainly see that in my brother’s case.