In “Strong Island,” first-time documentarian Yance Ford invites the viewer into his mother’s kitchen to revisit the brief life and sudden death of his older brother, William, at age 24. The surviving Fords — mother Barbara, sister Lauren, and the filmmaker himself — tell William’s story through dozens of family photos, fondly revealed and framed for the camera by weathered hands.
There’s William, the first-born child, born to African-American strivers who hoped to find a better life in the middle-class suburbs of Long Island than the ones they had in Charleston, South Carolina. There’s William again, this time in Lauren’s memory, telling his shy teenage little sister that she’s beautiful and she should never forget it. A few years later, there’s the William of his best friend’s fraternal reminisces: the one who dropped out of Howard University, became a math teacher to prisoners at Rikers Island, and worked toward a future career as a correctional officer.
But the William that’s inevitably on the Ford family’s minds is the one who was fatally shot by a young white mechanic — and whose killing was never prosecuted by the D.A.’s office. The Netflix release isn’t a whodunnit (the man who fired the rifle that ended William’s life is named in the film) but an official record of grief in remembrance of a victim who was denied official justice.
Slow, slippery, and stinging, “Strong Island” is many more things: a necessary addendum to the Black Lives Matter protest, a multi-generational saga of potential snuffed out by institutional racism, an infuriating illustration of the perils of Northern housing segregation, and an elegiac coming-out story (centered on the queer director, who is now trans, though that’s not made clear by the film).
Perhaps most of all, “Strong Island” is raw emotion. Made over 10 years and released on the 25th anniversary of William’s death, the doc is a demanding, wrenching watch; an important work, if not necessarily one you’d recommend to your friends. Late in the doc, Ford films himself breaking down in sobs and screams after talking to a detective about his brother’s last moments; it’s a showcase of unvarnished (if soundtracked and evocatively lit) anguish and torment.
Ford and his interviewees also confront (or is it trap?) viewers by looking directly into the camera. The effect is not unlike someone holding eye contact with you for an uncomfortably long period of time while speaking of the tragedy that led to the “death of our family.” If you don’t need a breather at some point from all that tragedy, you’re a better person than I am.
Ford doles out key information about his brother and what he knows about William’s final months with deliberation and craft. Even when Ford strongly foreshadows future revelations, “Strong Island” holds narrative jolts, many fueled by shocks of betrayal. In losing William, the family also lost their faith in their country, their community, and in themselves.
“I wonder how I could be so wrong,” Barbara says about her “fail[ure] to keep [her] son alive.” Ford feels in front of the camera to remember all the unexpected routes through his heart that that flood of grief took. In so doing, he maps a topography of catastrophe and devastation. Witness the wreckage for as long as you can withstand it.