This house is made of bones.
The 1992 murder of William Ford wasn’t a story when it happened. Outsiders might not even have known it occurred since the grand jury decided not to indict the man who admitted to firing the rifle that put a bullet in his chest. Anyone walking by would hear how it was a case of self-defense: scared white mechanic doing all he could to survive the scary black customer who charged into the garage with violence in his eyes. This is the version of the event that everyone involved besides the victim’s family hoped would stand-up. And it did for twenty-five years. This truth as dictated by a system we put our faith in to be just lasted because those with more to say couldn’t be heard.
Finally these silenced voices can provide a willing audience the necessary context to paint a completely different picture of what happened. And just because the person leading the charge is William’s trans-brother Yance Ford doesn’t mean it’s wholly subjective in its quest to exonerate one party above the other. If anything, Strong Island is less a vehicle to set the record straight than the court case the Ford family never received. He’s presenting the evidence an uninterested and biased jury ignored. He’s interviewing those character witnesses that could have shown the kind of man William was and the shady circumstances surrounding those responsible for his death. Yance has assembled his own jury in the form of those willing to watch. He asks us, “Did reasonable doubt exist?”
The answer is, “Yes.” Does it help him? Does it help his sister Lauren or their mother Barbara? No. There won’t be a retrial because there wasn’t one to begin with. But getting these facts out can bring closure as far as laying everything on the line for the public to decide. It reinstates the legacy of a young man cut down too soon, erasing the stigma twenty-three white strangers placed upon him by not declaring a “true bill.” And it also reveals yet another example of how this country fails its citizens time and time again. Yance goes back as far as his grandparents to present the journey his family took to find itself on Long Island—the manipulation to place them on course towards William’s death.
It’s a portrait of a black family that did everything right on paper. Yance’s parents left the Jim Crow south to put down roots in New York. Mom became a teacher and principal before opening her own school for women on Riker’s Island while Dad became a civil servant coaxed out to new developments in Long Island that ultimately brought them right back into segregation. They put their three kids through Catholic school and taught them to see character above color. The Fords lived as we all hope to live: as equals within a society built to not give any advantages that weren’t based on merit. And it got one of them killed. This is the tragedy of America: doing everything right only to still end up destroyed.
You can’t listen to their story without thinking about Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. You can’t hear Barbara’s guilt about not teaching her children the necessary fear race disparity earns without seeing those social media posts from black parents admitting how they educate their children with the awareness of never being allowed the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances where a white counterpart has the authority to present his/her truth as the version on-record. You hope that the system will work. You hope that the facts will be heard. You hope that an ambulance will be called to save your son regardless because his life means more than his potential guilt. You hope for the same treatment his killer would have received if the roles were reversed.
And as Yance presents what happens, his brother’s story becomes one about false hope. He could have made a powerful short about this and called it a day, but he goes further instead. He calls key members in the investigation for additional facts since the grand jury files are sealed. Yance reads his brother’s diary, finds actual receipts, and even looks inward at his own guilt in allowing what happened. He gets a former Assistant District Attorney named David Breen to explain what goes into a grand jury as well as to provide a three-pronged bombshell shedding light on who William was, where William went, and just how different things unfold when a white victim is bleeding on the ground from a gunshot wound than a black victim.
Strong Island becomes a steady stream of revelations perfectly timed to completely transform everything we have just learned. It’s very circular in this way too since we’re exposed to the incident three or four times from differing vantage points thanks to the addition of more information. William’s tragic tale moves from false hope to cover-up. From cover-up to an admission of partial responsibility and from that reductive admission to a revealing exposé that spans a much larger radius than a simple midnight fight between two men. The progression is steeped in anger, but that emotion never subverts the importance of each previously unknown detail. If anything that anger is earned because we can’t help feeling our own rage at how poorly handled this case was.
Yance as filmmaker becomes defense attorney. He speaks directly into the camera, engaging his jury with the same passion the shooter’s attorney would have possessed. He presents us with photography and documents, puts witnesses on the stand, and allows both sides of what happened to exist parallel to each other so all complexity remains intact. And maybe you’ll ultimately believe William’s killer was innocent by the end due to your prejudiced interpretation of personal responsibility and fear because of the gray area of why animosity existed between killer and killed. But don’t lie and say there shouldn’t have been a trial. If Yance does nothing else, he proves reasonable doubt. He proves New York failed his brother just as America continues to fail so many today.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of Netflix