“Strong Island” is like a poetic tribute to the director Yance Ford’s (“The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández”) departed brother William. He simultaneously manages to share the injustices William faced — even after his death — as a man of color in the legal system, while also capturing the emotional turmoil he and his family faced as a result of the murder of their dear brother.
What started as an innocent fender-bender quickly escalates to the eventual murder of William Ford Jr., the mistreatment of his trial by an entirely white jury and a murderer walking free. Ford navigates his family’s past from growing up in the Jim Crow south to moving to the segregated black suburbs of Long Island with dignity and diligence. Ford’s narration is soothing, almost jazz-like, as he adds anecdotes about his childhood while skillfully placing photographs from family photo albums before the camera. The old polaroids and sepia-tinted photos add a level of intimacy to the true crime documentary. While the film does address issues in the legal system facing people of color and the horrifying results of William’s case, the film also documents a family — one forever changed by a bullet.
Ford coming to terms with his own grief serves as the crux of the film. He struggles throughout the documentary searching desperately for answers that are not there and hoping for one last chance to tell his brother to turn around. At the film’s start the b-roll that fills the screen is all blue skies and children playing, but as the film turns dark with the murder of William, the b-roll begins to wither into deep grays and dying branches. It’s an obvious yet skillful choice on Ford’s part, creating a deep sense of contrast between a world with William and a world without him.
Barbara Ford, the mother of the director and William, is interviewed exclusively in the kitchen. The setting, like the tea kettle on the stove behind her and the towel hanging from the oven handle, creates a sense of home in a film dense with dark topics. Ford acts as narrator, investigator, brother and director. He speaks to the camera as if it is a friend and he is desperately seeking advice. In addition to the director’s personal accounts, the film also includes interviews with William’s friends and a scattering of his own personal diary entries and poems. While the film accomplishes many impressive feats of balancing the narrative with the factual, the balance nearly becomes both awkward and confusing.
Overall, the film is well-executed and timely. Even though William Ford Jr. was murdered 25 long years ago, his story is still remarkably relevant today. A young black man is killed in cold blood and the murderer walks free, a story far too familiar and far too frequent. Ford’s documentary is personal and political, current and nostalgic, conversational and visual. As a documentary, it serves its purpose, and it makes a statement about grieving families coping with a loss that remains unacknowledged.