In ‘Strong Island,’ Filmmaker Yance Ford Explores How the Racist Killing of His Brother Went Unpunished

By Sameer Rao Sep 19, 2017

In “Strong Island,” filmmaker Yance Ford spares no detail about how a White mechanic’s 1992 killing of his older brother, William Jr., during a dispute traumatized and transformed the Ford family. For nearly two hours, the documentary, which won a special jury award at Sundance this year and began streaming on Netflix on September 15, stares the tragedy of the unprosecuted shooting square in the face.

“Strong Island” gives Yance, his sister, Lauren, and his now-deceased mother, Barbara Dunmore, room to heal through testimonies about who William Jr. truly was. (Yance’s father, William Ford Sr., died from a stroke almost a year after his son’s killing.) Along with interviews with his friends—including one witness to his death—the Ford family says what they couldn’t to Suffolk County detectives, the prosecutors on the case and the all-White grand jury that acquitted his killer, Mark Reilly.

Alternating between narrator, investigator and interviewer, Yance maps a timeline that starts with his parents’ flight from the Jim Crow South to suburban Long Island during a time when towns and developers practiced overt segregation. That history provides a foundation for the racism that led to William Jr.’s killing and the denial of justice that follows. In this phone interview, edited for length and clarity, we spoke to Yance about his decision to revisit his brother’s death on film, some of the most difficult scenes and much more. 

You note in the film that you were a 19-year-old student at Hamilton College when your brother was killed. Did William’s death inspire you to get into the documentary film field to tell his story?

I was an art student when William was killed. I started incorporating his death into my student work and knew in the back of my mind that I would continue. But it wasn’t until I took a film workshop at Third World Newsreel that I actually believed that I could make a film. After that, it was just a matter of time between that point and actually being able to start production. 

And how long did it take to shoot?

I found my director of photography, Alan Jacobsen, in 2010. We shot our last interview in January of 2016. I shot my first interview with my mother with a borrowed camera in 2008. I produced my first trailer in that year, but it took a recommendation from a mutual friend to bring Alan and me together. 


“Strong Island” exposes difficult aspects of your family’s relationships, with your mother and sister candidly discussing communication problems with one another and with your now-deceased father. Was it hard to convince them or even your brother’s friends to be so open on camera?

No. The remarkable part of this process is that I only had to ask once. Every person featured—my sister, my mother, William’s friend, Kevin, who was with him the night he was shot, his friend Harvey, and [former New York Assistant District Attorney] David Breen—said yes the first time I asked them. For my mother and my sister, it was the first time that we were able to talk about the murder with each other.

Making the film was a tremendous gift in that regard, but it was also an opportunity to give each of them a chance to testify. I use that word specifically in the context of the tradition of testifying in the Black church, but also the opportunity to testify that they did not have in court. It helps us realize that there were a lot of questions that went unasked after William was killed. 

You put so much of your own emotional reckoning on camera. There’s a scene after you talk to the lead detective, John Hughes, who tells you that a previous altercation at the auto-shop, in which William threw a vacuum cleaner—something William told you about, but you didn’t disclose to your family—was used to justify his killer’s non-indictment. The camera closes in on your face as you take some time to cry.

You mean my screaming-bloody-murder scene? That’s exactly what it was! I had spoken to him for the first time and he confirmed my worst suspicions, that the vacuum cleaner incident affected the case to not indict William’s killer. That scene played out in real time. 

Were there other particularly difficult aspects of shooting that we don’t see in the movie? 

The most difficult thing was deciding that I had to make the film—that for all of the things that I had attempted over the years to help my family, that the thing we needed the most was to tell my brother’s story within the conversation about the casual fragility of Black lives in the United States. 

For filmmaking, two things were really difficult: In that scene where I am on the phone with the detective and then screaming into that towel, Alan was probably five feet away from me. Alan’s first instinct was to comfort me but he kept rolling. 

The other difficult part was my solo segments. Because my character was going to function as connective tissue, I needed to be closer to the camera, I needed the audience to feel like I was speaking directly to them, [and] I also needed to be in this contemplative space. I had to build a wall of blankets between me and the crew. Everybody could see me on a monitor and my interviewer asked me questions through a blanket.

So how did you balance directing the crew through your own scenes and putting yourself in this vulnerable space?

That was tough because I had to give them instructions. My interviewers knew that I wanted them to push me as the subject, to get me to answer the questions honestly and shed the director role. That is tough to do. Those moments feel like revelations happening for the first time because they are. They add a gritty realism that would have been different if we shot it another way. 

You reveal so much about yourself in "Strong Island," including how you didn’t tell William or your father that you are trans before their deaths. Was this disclosure, or any others, new to any family or community members seeing the film?

I tell people who ask me about my gender identity that I’ve been transgender since the day I was born, I just didn’t have language for it. One of the things I get thanked for at screenings is for showing a Black family that loved their masculine-presenting child, and accepted who each of their children were with unconditional love. It’s not so much that my gender identity was formed during the film’s creation, but it became news to other people as a result of the film.

I have to tell you, all of these old-timers from my parents’ generation, they rolled with my gender pronouns and still love and support my sister and me. Me coming out as transgender hasn’t changed any of that. These are Black folks from the South in their 70s and 80s, and they have been an extended family for us. They have also lived this injustice—through the Jim Crow South, through redlining in the suburbs, and they are just as much a part of this story as my family.

“Strong Island” is now available to stream on Netflix.