Shortly before Yance Ford’s father passed away, he told his children to help their mother Barbara Dunmore Ford. Such an obvious request was less so for a family had already been so close and given to such care for each other in the first place, so it took for some time for Yance to understand exactly what he meant. The Fords had never stopped grieving the death of their eldest son William Jr., who was murdered years earlier, and while losing William Sr. would be another devastation, it was at a time when most stay silent that Yance realized his father’s wish was to “help” his mother tell their story, amplifying what had happened to them as an African-American family living in the largely caucasian enclave of Long Island, and alleviating at least in part the burden of knowing that William Jr.’s murder would not be forgotten after the eventual legal case had been all but ignored by a grand jury.
Although “Strong Island,” the result of a decade-long effort by Ford to untangle all the racial, socioeconomic, political and practical circumstances surrounding William Jr.’s death, is rooted in tragedy, it is one of the most magnificent films of recent years because because it allows you to share even a small amount of time in the company of Barbara Dunmore Ford, an extraordinary woman who founded a school for women at Rikers Island prison after she and William Sr., sweethearts since middle school, left Charleston, South Carolina for the presumably greener pastures of suburban New York. However, if they thought they were fleeing segregation, they were disappointed to find in the north, it only took more subtle forms as they eventually set up house in Central Islip, where racial inequity frequently manifested itself under the guise of financial inequality, until the evening William Jr. was killed during a confrontation with a white mechanic who promised him free repairs in exchange for not reporting the accident the mechanic had caused with his tow truck that landed the car in the shop in the first place.
Going to great lengths to recreate that night and its aftermath, with Ford cold-calling investigators and attorneys who worked on the case in 1992 and revisiting all the locations, “Strong Island” draws considerable power from depicting the massive systemic injustice inherent in both the police investigation into William Jr.’s murder and how it was handled by the courts, based far more on assumptions than the facts that were available. But the film is equally, if not more, arresting because it gives voice to Ford’s family and friends, offering to them the same level of authority as those who have long denied them equal footing and inviting audiences into a warm, loving home. Through artfully presented photographs, wide-ranging interviews and a welcoming, intricate structure that never overwhelms despite the complexities and gravity of the matters at hand, Ford allows one to feel the full weight of what was lost when William Jr. was taken from his family and vibrantly captures the life he lived, as well as that of William Sr. and Barbara, who passed away in 2012.
As the Fords’ story makes its way into households across the world after being picked up at Netflix following its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, we were honored to speak with the filmmaker behind “Strong Island” about the labor of love, the challenge of making the camera an unfiltered extension of personal gaze, and knowing he’d only be able to tell this story once.
It’s partly the coincidence of documentary production, timing and the serendipity of current events. I started making “Strong Island” back in 2006 and we finished in September of 2016. Over those 10 years, it was as if the world, all of a sudden, crashed in on my family’s story and with the expansion of social media and cell phone cameras, we began to see more and more instances of black people dying. So it’s the luck of the draw in a way that “Strong Island” was finished when it was, and unfortunate that the number of instances of these sort of self-defense/justified killings have been on the rise, or at least more visible publicly. But to be honest with you, if we premiered two years from now, I think we would have the same conversation and you’d be asking the same question, because I don’t think anything’s going to change any time soon.
Did you know how much of a presence you’d have in the film from the start?
I first started off thinking that I wasn’t going to be in the film on camera at all. Then if I was going to be in the film, that I would be in the film as non-sync sound only. But when I relocated to Copenhagen and started the edit from scratch, it was really clear that I needed to be more present in the film as a character, and also that my voice was an important compliment to everyone else’s experience of my brother’s murder. My voice needed to function as something that was able to [serve] as connective tissue in a way, [explaining] the construct of the American Dream, for example, symbolized by the suburbs, but also to explain how that dream was actually a really wonderful constructed illusion. So I wasn’t necessarily happy about it, because it’s difficult to watch oneself on screen and to refer to yourself as a character throughout an edit, but I recognize the value of my character and being surrounded by the creative team of my producer Joslyn Barnes, my co-producer Signe Sørensen and my editor Janus Billeskov Jansen, it was inevitable at a certain point that my character really needed to be in the film.
Obviously, you have your own truth that you can hold onto as a throughline to tell this sprawling story, but does knowing so much become an obstacle where you might have to get out of your own way in a sense to lay this out for an audience?
In terms of how an audience will receive and experience “Strong Island,” my experience at Q & As all over the world has been a bit overwhelming and I think that people have responded warmly to the film and it’s because we began the film with an invitation. We started the film where my family started, with my parents as sixth and seventh graders with grade school crushes, then high school sweethearts and then newlyweds. That’s how my family began, and that’s how a lot of people’s families begin. It didn’t begin with the murder. And one of those things that the photographs achieve so well [is to] function as an invitation, so I don’t have to necessarily get out of my own way as a character. I think we have to let the material open the door and thankfully, we had the rich material of my family archive, which tripled in size after the death of my mother, and we also had my mother herself, who is the best and warmest invitation into our household and the easiest way for the audience to enter the film.
Yeah, it was actually the very first thing. My very first interview with my mother was shot in May of 2008 on a P2 camera on MiniDV tapes. She gave the most incredible interview at the kitchen table with terrible sound – the backdoor was open, the windows were open, the birds were chirping, the kids were outside. It was summertime. School was out. And it was remarkable material that actually, [in addition to] an interview shot on actually my brother’s birthday later in 2008, was what we cut the very first funding trailer for “Strong Island” from. It was really clear from those first interviews that she is just an amazing onscreen presence, and the funny thing is she’s just an amazing presence period. People ask me what it was like to interview my mother and I [say], “I understand it’s special for audiences to get to know her, but my mother had been like that her entire life,” so showing my mother to the world was one of the great gifts of “Strong Island.”
At True/False, you mentioned that the interview with your mother – how she was seated dead center of the frame with such dignity, in what you called the “Queen’s chair” – contributed to the framing for the rest of the interviews. Did you actually pick that position initially or did she?
She didn’t dictate that framing. I made the very deliberate choice as a director to put her in the center of the frame in the center of her kitchen, which is the heartbeat of her home, because we don’t ever get to see black women in that position of authority fully embodied on screen very often. So it was important for me to shoot my mother in the way that she actually looked and functioned in her home. That’s why she’s in the queen’s chair because that’s where she belonged. That was her home that she built with my father and though we were talking about the sequence of events that took my family apart, she was doing it in ways that came naturally to her. It’s also a challenge to the audience, or to some audiences, frankly, to see a black woman in this position of authority being the expert on her own experience. For other audience members, it’s an affirmation of what they know, which is that black people are fully aware of the conditions of injustice in which they live and they’re fully capable of analyzing those injustices while also having to live with them.
Something that so impressed me, that you’re perhaps speaking to there but applied it to everyone who appears before your camera, is how you allow your subjects to speak to a multitude of different areas – it never feels like you cut to a subject to make a point, but rather you let the audience come to them. Was it a challenge to create that space, either in the edit or facilitating those interviews?
Honestly, it wasn’t, and I think that that’s one of the things that’s vexing to a lot of people who are critiquing representation of African-Americans in film right now. It didn’t actually take a lot of special work. It took a chair, a camera and some basic assumptions about my mother’s humanity — some basic assumptions about her ability to articulate her own experience herself — and making that assumption about everyone I interviewed – that they were a whole human being with complex lives, who were capable of talking about those lives. So it’s really important to stress that it wasn’t that special what I did. I simply just got out of their way. And by getting out of their way, I allowed them to fully inhabit themselves on screen. It’s really that simple.
At True/False, you also spoke about your belief in the power of gaze and how you’d film the house the same way you saw it after running errands. Was it easy to make the camera an extension of yourself or your memory in that way?
Yeah, that was one of the things that we specifically did, and when I was first talking to [cinematographer] Alan Jacobsen about how we could shoot “Strong Island,” we didn’t only talk about shooting things like loss and love and absence and longing and grief. We talked about how the camera was actually not a surrogate for the audience. The camera actually functions as an extension of my sight and the way that I see, which is why for example there’s so much looking up at the house because after my father died and my brother was already dead at that point, I became responsible for the upkeep of the house. So one of the things I did when I went to see my mother was inspect the outside of the house to see if the gutters needed to be repaired or to make sure that there wasn’t anything that was out of order, so the gaze upward with the camera and the gaze at my family, frankly, is the way that I saw the house and the way that I lived.
There was actually a two-and-a-half-hour cut of the film that I understand you outright discarded before arriving at this one – was there something that helped you figure out what this could be?
[That version] wasn’t so much discarded as it was [an opportunity] to step back and fully consider because “Strong Island” is not the kind of story you get to make twice. One of the things I realized was missing from that cut and from the film as a whole was my willingness to allow my mother to also embody her anger onscreen and my willingness to allow my character to be more present, to allow other characters into the story, but also to not be afraid to be angry and to let my own character be angry as well. By allowing anger to come into the storytelling, the storytelling became authentic because anger is a part of this experience of living the aftermath of my brother’s death. My parents bought into the criminal justice system. They believed it would work for them. And in the absence of the functioning of the justice system to even call my brother’s murder a crime, “Strong Island” shows you what happens and it interrogates the investigation. It asks questions about the way that these cases are handled and some of the story, sure, might be about the way that I started over from scratch, but the larger issue here is that it really questions, and not in a rhetorical way, how we look at and how we define reasonable fear and how much scrutiny there is of the lives of the dead versus the claims of the fear of the living. We absolutely do need to interrogate these claims of reasonable fear and remember that it is our job to determine if the fear is reasonable, not simply that fear exists.
This film is something I’m really very proud of and it’s been a way for me to travel the world and ultimately, one of the things that I did not expect, but has happened and i hope continues to happens is that “Strong Island” has allowed people to talk about their own trauma for the first time. Whether it’s audiences at Hot Docs or people in the documentary community, people are coming out as survivors of homicide [in their family] and we unfortunately think [this] happens in other places to other people in other types of cities, but that opening of a door for people to walk through I think is important and has been really satisfying to me.
I won’t take up any more of your time, but congratulations on such a powerful film. I’m sorry you had to make it, given the circumstances, but it’s truly important.
I actually feel really fortunate to have been able to make this film. I appreciate your condolences, but I’m lucky. Being in the creative class and being able to do this – to tell this story and to know that it’s going to be able to outlive me because of Netflix, I couldn’t be happier.
“Strong Island” is now available to stream on Netflix.