American Yance Ford director and producer of the Emmy awarded film Strong Island (2017) is, in many ways just another statistic in Amerikaaa. He is one of two surviving siblings of William Ford who was gunned down by Mark Riley a white 19 year old mechanic in 1992. The court deemed Mark Riley acted in self-defence when he shot William Ford. Within a year of his brother’s death, Mr Ford senior died from a stroke.
While objectivity is paramount, it is difficult to find that all important balance in the face of William Ford’s death and the criminal case which was anything but objective. Yance Ford states poignantly: “my brother was the prime suspect in his own murder”. The sub-text (which is, in fact the overt text); a dangerous, aggressive black man scared a white male. While the assailant Mark Riley has disappeared into the safety of obscurity, Yance Ford and the family wait for justice.
“When my brother was killed” recalls Yance Ford detailing the genesis of Strong Island, “I was a sophomore in college I was already studying art. After he died, I began staging these performance pieces and they were all to do with my brother’s death. I was able to control the environment. I created spaces where the audience entered a performance and it unfolded from there and always included action/interaction with the audience”. Yance Ford adds, “Film-making as the vehicle for self-expression felt right, it felt clear. It felt like something that I could command. The ability to create an entire palette really stuck with me.”
“Black people have always been hyper ‘fill in the blank……..you are not safe in your own skin and that is psychic toll.”
Strong Island (ten years in the making) is the product of that yearning to create a “palette”. It is a tour de force of documentary film-making-grabbing ‘your’ attention in its claustrophobic, emotional grip without relenting. Indeed, Barbara Ford with her brave, educated and eloquent narration of that day and the on-going emotional aftermath mesmerises with the force of a black woman who states, “If I die today, tomorrow or the next day, I will die believing that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color-I will always believe that…. always, until the day I die.”
Strong Island with producer and executive producer duties coming from the prolific Louverture Films duo of Joslyn Barnes and Danny Glover respectively is in some ways simple, traditional documentary film-making detailing the thoughts, feelings and pain of the Ford family and those who knew William Ford. But of course, while Yance Ford is the director this is his story. He straddles a strange, difficult yet beguiling role within the film. Simultaneously operating as the director, logically piecing together a documentary, yet he is an integral character in this story who is intimately connected to the raw emotions of this tragedy.
“I had always planned on playing my brother and handling the photographs by hand, but I had never thought I would be a ‘true subject’. The original structure of the film (which was very centred on my mother) began to fall away. The second form of the film began to materialise when it used me as the primary story teller”.
It was a direction that Yance Ford admits changed the film. In the fog of creating the film he was able to divert his attention away from his own emotions, by insisting he would not be in front of the camera. The gods evidently had other ideas. The death of his mother during the creation of Strong Island being a pivotal point.
“Well it was always going to be made” he states when we ask if finishing the film ever came into question, “but there was a time when I remember telling my advisers that I was feeling beat down. I did not know how or where to go next with the film. That was in the aftermath of my mother’s death. She had been the primary story-teller. When she passed away, I went on a hiatus and faced a massive dilemma. In the absence of my mother as the story-teller I was going to have to do what I had been avoiding. I was going to be an on screen presence as myself.”
He takes a deep breath before adding,
“I realised when she died, I had asked her to take a risk and talk about my brother for the first time, on camera. I had asked her to be vulnerable. In fact I asked that of everyone, but I had never asked that of myself. My mother’s death was an intense time, but it was also the most honest and brutal of mirrors for me. I saw how I had used my position as the director to dodge the subjects that I had asked my characters to be open and vulnerable about. I realised that I could not ask others to take those risk without of course being open to those risks myself.”
In the absence of my mother as the story-teller I was going to have to do what I had been avoiding. I was going to be an on screen presence as myself.
As a “horrible interviewee” he admits it was a difficult process. “I was really resistant to the whole idea. I met Rob Moss who is a film-maker. He runs the visual arts department at Harvard and he is a frequent advisor for the Sundance edit lab. I met him in the summer of 2013. He helped me realise how I needed to confront the possibility of being on the screen.”
“I hated every minute of it. I was saying things I had never said before and I was accepting that there was no right answer. It was profoundly uncomfortable experience. Cinematographer Alan Jacobsen and I literally came up with a frame where if I moved a little bit forward or back, I was out of focus. We created an environment where I literally had to sit at attention. I had to be fully inside of my body. Aware of the space I was in to get to the level of honesty and vulnerability.”
That vulnerability glaring evident in a powerful four minutes of cinema. We are faced with an extreme close-up of Yance Ford. In it he takes ownership of his guilt and accepts (whether rightly or wrongly) that he could have stopped his brother being shot. He asks at the end, “does that make sense?” We evidently understand his reasoning but yearn for Yance Ford to relinquish such a tremendous guilt.
But Strong Island is evidently more than a film about injustice. It is a film seeking to give a voice to that injustice to foster change.
“There is systemic generational trauma that my family and others have got swept up in. Ultimately, I have realise that this is just another function of this crazy criminal justice system. Because it has been failing for so long it feels like it is your fault instead of being a systemic thing. Lack of control plus feelings of powerlessness equal shame – that is the twisted math of an unjust ‘justice’ system. It is narrative that plays out as we see in the media. I don’t hate this system as much as I am determined to see it reformed.”
But for all the resolve one can’t help but wonder what more can be done to change the systemic injustices. Yes, we have movements like BlackLivesmatter, social media and the clear voices of concern regarding the lack of justice-but obvious change seems distant. And while the pill (covered in the bile of an unbiased justice system) is difficult to swallow, William Ford’s death as an American black man is a story so familiar that it is not a story (in itself) but rather an additional fact to a story come biography that seems to have no end.
Indeed, levels of incredulity were raised in this biography of a thousand characters when the new additional character of Botham Shem Jean was added. His story shocked and added another nail of confirmation- black men/people are not safe even in their own homes. Worryingly however the justifications which lead to acquittals (or overly lenient rulings) have already surfaced. This most recent incident (only recent by the fact that it has made headlines) is another damming indictment on the US justice system.
“I would not call it catharsis…………because that implies something is over.”
“It is absolute madness.” Yance Ford blasts, “When I first read that story, I was literally counting the days before someone in the media started talking about the size of Mr. Jean. Then we got to the day when this former cop said she saw a “large silhouette in the house” and there we go. You are not safe in your own house. There were people who live in the same complex posting video of how the apartment doors work. The perpetrators story changes and then we somehow land on the size of his body. I thought “fuck”. At the end of the day it will always come down to the fear of the black body.”
As uncomfortable as it is to think, the fear of the black body steeped in historical racism is far from gone; it continues with just as much potency despite vehement pushes to publicise a United States Of America. It was this fear that under pinned the case against Yance Ford’s brother.
“No one talks about the provocation that caused my brother to return to the garage and then subsequently be shot and killed. Everything that my brother could have done that was “wrong” is at the forefront of the investigation. Nothing that Mark Riley or his colleagues did is interpreted as anything other than benign.”
“Black people have always been hyper ‘fill in the blank’.” He continues, “Even in your underwear in your own home, you are not safe. If you take that one step-further, you are not safe in your own skin and that is psychic toll. You can go out and the narrative of who you are can be posthumously re-written by people who have everything to gain by that version they have created of you. How on earth can [Amber Guyger] expect anyone to believe that baloney story?
Jason Van Dyke was convicted yesterday of murdering Laquan McDonald. The reason the jury reached that conclusion was the fact that there was video. Yet, even in the face of the video Van Dyke stated that ‘the video does not show my perspective’. And what he is really saying is that video does not show my fear of this black kid.”
Tales of his brother being ‘aggressive’ and ‘threatening’ are at the fore front of much of the narrative to the incident. The adjectives are familiar. But familiarity should not breed a battered and beaten down silence implying (for those who wish/want to see it) acceptance. And it is in that refusal to ‘accept’ where Strong Island is a powerful, honest, brutal and (yes at times) down right demoralising documentary. The film refuses to accept and refuses to lie down in the face of a justice system which creaks and sways with a multitude of injustices.
And while we are quick to jump to the word catharsis as a further reason d etre of the documentary, Yance Ford sees it differently.
“I would not call it catharsis” he states after a thoughtful pause, “because that implies something is over. I think the after effects of my brother’s death have more transformed. Making the film was transformative. Secrets have power over you until they are no longer secrets. Realising my brother’s story changed things for me”. And the usual statements of his ‘bravery’ are quickly refuted. “When people call me courageous and brave, I decline those descriptors. It was more determination than anything else. The people who are brave are the people who I approached fifteen years after my brother died. They had to go back and relive such an experience. These people were able to rise to the occasion of a moment in time that would have otherwise been forgotten.”