“If you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go,” says Yance Ford at the beginning of his film, Strong Island. There is a pause to allow viewers to walk out of the cinema. His deep brown eyes are right up close to the camera, filled with pain. It’s a vulnerable yet defiant scene, which asks why his brother was murdered without reprisal 25 years ago. The first of many questions about race in America.
The 45-year-old filmmaker wears the same expression in the London brasserie where we meet before he flies back to New York City after a trip promoting his film. Now in a smart pink shirt with woven blue cufflinks, Ford features throughout Strong Island, his face enveloped in darkness, retelling the story of the white person who killed his brother, and the 23 others making up a grand jury that decided there was no case to answer.
Yance Ford. Photo: Strong Island still
William Ford Jr, a 24-year-old teacher, was fatally shot in 1992 during a trivial verbal argument with a mechanic at a garage a few blocks from his family home in Long Island, New York. The investigation was apathetic; the case never went to trial. It was the moment that Ford’s parents, who had moved from the South to middle-class Long Island suburbia, realised how race could shape their children’s lives.
“Everyone in the street where I grew up was given the same message,” Ford recalls. “You can be anything, you can do anything. That wasn’t extraordinary; that was ordinary for us. My folks didn’t believe in black exceptionalism. There’s nothing exceptional about ‘you can have that too’ – except when it comes to justice. You can’t have that.”
Ford’s family were made to feel like relatives of a suspect, rather than a murder victim, according to his mother’s testimony in the film, which is also an intimate insight into how families suffer tragedy. Piles of faded but jolly family photographs float through the documentary like falling leaves: Ford’s parents dressed up for a ball in their youth; the children pushing each other on a swing; larking about in a park as teenagers; thick glasses, baggy jeans and cropped tees. When interspersed with autopsy diagrams and identity cards, the trauma is quiet and stark.
Ford family photos, William Ford Jr. Photos: Strong Island stills
Ford, who was a 19-year-old art student at the time, laments that nothing has changed for black people since his brother’s death. “All you need to do is look at how people who die are made to be prime suspects in their own deaths,” he says, which is what happened to his brother. The grand jury decided that his killer had a “reasonable” fear for his life, and shouldn’t be tried.
“I think fear has been racialised,” says Ford. “When you get someone who says ‘I was afraid’ of a big black guy, that’s enough to say ‘okay, not guilty’, or ‘no indictment’. It’s persisted over generations and it needs to stop.
“Narratives of the fear of black people have been consistent over generations and until it stops being easy to kill black people and get away with it, very little’s going to change.”
The Black Lives Matter movement began four years ago, as a campaign against systemic violence and injustice against black people. It highlights modern cases similar to that of Ford’s brother. Ford didn’t have access to social media like those activists do now, and although he praises the “ability of the world to rally around families and support them in ways that weren’t possible when my brother was murdered”, he points out the lack of progress it exposes.
“I feel for the families of those dead because I know what they’re going through,” says Ford. “It’s an unfortunate club to belong to, but it also increases my determination to tell my brother’s story and to make sure that people understand that this kind of racialised violence is not new.”
The morning before we speak, Ford woke up to the news that Rashan Charles, a young black man in Hackney, London, had died after the Metropolitan Police said an officer restrained him to stop him “harming himself” by trying to swallow something. His death led to local protests and the police watchdog investigating the incident.
“I saw a very brief report on it,” Ford says quietly, his eyes widening. “I’ve been watching BBC all morning and they haven’t done a single report on it. I’m disturbed that I didn’t see more about that on the news this morning. Where is the story about this 20-year-old who’s dead? Why aren’t people talking about this? And it’s the same with my brother.”
The Ford siblings. Photo: Strong Island still
Ford, who is trans, also tells his own story within the documentary. Early in the narrative, he hints at his sexuality with a shy grin, saying he spent one summer reading all of William’s copies of Playboy. Later, we learn that he transitioned in adulthood. He laments that he never had the chance to tell his big brother about his identity, but hopes the film will give viewers a reality check in this regard too.
“People come up and say ‘thank you’ for showing a black family loving their masculine-presenting child and for undoing the myth of black people as being rabidly homophobic,” he tells me. “It’s really struck a chord with people because of a few things.”
More personal than true crime, and with a broader societal message than a memoir, Strong Island is a jumble of the political and private influences that make up Ford’s character. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it comes from a director brave enough to begin his film by inviting the audience to leave.
Strong Island launches on Netflix UK on 15 September.