One family’s testimonial with the judicial system leaves them reeling from racial prejudice and severe incompetence, in the documentary ‘Strong Island’. Winner of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award for Storytelling, the film directed by the victim herself, Yance Ford, takes place In April 1992, on Long Island NY. 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. Ford chronicles the arc of the 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. A deeply intimate and meditative film, Strong Island asks what one can do when the grief of loss is entwined with historical injustice, and how one grapples with the complicity of silence, which can bind a family in an imitation of life, and a nation with a false sense of justice. ‘Strong Island’ is not rated.
Whether you’ve ever been subjected to racial bigotry or lawful mishandlings, a film like ‘Strong Island’ shapes the kind of reflective glance at our own world that only seems to be getting worse with time and educates the viewer on perhaps a side of the moral coin that they may not be privy to. The best kind of documentaries are the ones that hold the responsibility of teaching firmly in its grip and doesn’t alienate one side or the other when telling its story. To say that this is the perfect film for the perfect time is kind of a given, but what really throws another log onto the flames of enticement for Ford’s presentation is how she articulately crafts the two subjects hand-in-hand and rapidly erases the line of separation dividing his two subject matters. Every story in life deserves to be told, but Ford’s rushes to the front of the line by presenting unfolding drama from this decades old case that is even still unfurling before our very eyes. In this manner, the film steals a piece of your soul that it has no intention of giving back, and Netflix strikes the hot iron once again with a documentary mystery with all of the fixings.
Through 106 minutes of versatility in material, the film surprisingly holds a lot of depth that doesn’t stay rested on just being a one-note intention. Through the first act of the film, we are introduced to this family who while living through segregation in upper New York, are often polarized in demanding more for their circumstance. This area of the film is particularly compelling because it presents an angle that is already easy in understanding the disposition that this family takes in from a society that isn’t changing fast enough. Kind of like being a victim long before the worst has begun. From here, the middle act of the movie lays out the pivotal night in question and what led up to it. This is where the film feels the most informative because there’s lots to understand about this scenario that does and does not play out well for the Vance family. Thankfully enough, he is such a credible filmmaker and supreme storyteller that he never lets something that doesn’t cater to his narrative get in the way. Everything is presented with underlying honesty, and that’s something that I greatly appreciated from this film. What is most surprising perhaps, is how deep this film proceeds through the closing minutes, soaking in the pain and misery of a group of people left behind from a night that changes them all. One scene shows Yance crying into a towel, and the sound the emotes from this scene is shattering to the point that it instantly stirred goosebumps up my arms. I’m honest when I say there are motion picture films that don’t taste as riveting in the thick layer of melodrama that ‘Strong Island’ leans on, proving again that what is real impacts further, an ideal that this film goes to the well on frequently without it ever drying up.
Vance keeps the production simple enough for this presentation, choosing to focus more on strength in story than rich graphics and effects that can sometimes cloud the focus of an informative documentary. The decision to have pictures and letters appear and disappear at the effect of hand movements feeds more into the mentality of the storytelling experience, making us feel within the confines of those who are taking us through the journey. The music by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Craig Sutherland isn’t relied upon too heavily, just really for those scenes when it peaks the shock factor in the true disgust of this case as told, but I would’ve been fine without it for the surrealism that it occasionally breaks within this realm. Without question though, the single best decision that Ford chooses is to shoot these interviews so closely, leaving little room to look away or feel distracted. He does this as a means to an end so that we spot first hand the kind of reactions that our narrators play to, and if it is true that the eyes are the windows into the soul, then the pain and anguish of decades rises to the surface by this truly valuable decision to aim close.
The interviews too, added plenty of emotional firepower in transcribing how the loss of one has rocked a few. The set up of such are always in that one-on-one perspective with the director himself, relating more to an interview feel of authenticity rather than simply having each speaker talk to the camera. While the entirety of these guests are enjoyable enough and add plenty of differing perspectives to the events that they cover, the film definitely sizzles the strongest when Yance himself takes the reigns and commands an emotional rollercoaster of a person who changed more than anyone over the course of this loss. Through that angle, we meet and come to know a born woman who embraced life as a man, a sense of direction for the film that very few were expecting, but one that feels rewarding in reaching through to yet another demographic of African American audience who take this in. Through these eyes, it’s clear that Yance not only lost a brother, but also his lone confidant in his blossoming sexuality. This builds the siblings as something much more, and certainly outlines the light-hearded framing of William Jr that it builds up for itself. Yance’s focus remains unfazed in finding clarity within himself, something that comes at a bit higher of a price for the film itself.
THE VERDICT – ‘Strong Island’ is a gut-wrenching, somber, and hearty depiction about racial divide and segregation that never stops beating its message of injustice. Through its impeccable focus and free-range approach, Vance handcrafts us through a butterfly effect of consequences that stem from one terror-filled night of misunderstanding, questioning what could have been without the fear of racial tensions. Most importantly, it’s an intimate deposition into the kind of paralyzing aftermaths that comes with grief, and will leave you unsettled for pulling back the curtain of truth from those who have been plagued to tell it.