Netflix Essential: “Strong Island”

An innovative memoir of racial injustice from transgender filmmaker Yance Ford

Ostensibly a murder mystery about the death of one black man in America, Yance Ford’s (above) breathtaking new film about the 1992 murder of his brother William sustains a chilling grandeur in its true achievement: Strong Island is a simple, sweeping depiction of the simple, sweeping racism that is so ingrained in the fabric of our society that too many of us (specifically, white people) remain unable to even see it.

In bold, crisp interviews with his mother Barbara (pictured below) and sister Lauren, and with his brother’s closest friends—we come to know William Ford, Jr., and the whole Ford family. As each new aspect of their story unfolds, in a masterfully constructed and riveting visual style, we experience the systematic and pervasive injustice of societal racism—especially as we witness the courageous endurance of Barbara Ford who like so many American mothers are tasked with the impossible burden of teaching their children (as Yance encapsulates it): “How to survive being black in America.”

Ford’s exquisitely confident tableaux compositions settle us into the landscape of Central Islip, Long Island—we gaze upwards to the looming trees and variable skies; downwards upon the cinder block garage where William dies. The tree-lined streets, an ice cream truck, the seeming peace of suburbia hides the simultaneously surprising yet shrugging everyday truth of racist segregation in Everytown, USA, where the garden-variety racism of the unremarkably named Mark Reilly turns the world upside down.
 

Yanceville Films / Netflix
 
Nightmare is piled upon nightmare, as William’s parents endure the loss of their first-born son followed by the unspeakable (and in its familiarity all the more soul-destroying) dawning confirmation of their worst fears: that the white man who murdered their son with a single blank-point rifle shot to the chest, the white man whose fear of black skin has been so deeply absorbed into the fiber of his being, the white man so fiercely protected by the all-white grand jury who will add all but fatal insult to fatal injury by exonerating the killer—the white man will go free. The black man will be denied justice and treated as a criminal.

In close-up direct address to the camera, director Yance Ford shares with us in generous intimacy his reflections on the death of his brother, as well as his own struggle with coming out as queer in college. Notably absent is any mention of Yance’s gender identity—which is both refreshing in its matter-of-factness but also clearly confusing to non-queer/non-ally audiences who consistently mis-gender the director in the film’s 60-plus Netflix member reviews (more on this later).

Via the visually arresting presentation of his family photographs and poignantly delivered narration Yance Ford tells us the story of the Ford family as a parable—a parable to illuminate the truth and serve as a devastating indictment; an indictment of not only the white man who killed his brother and the white jury who failed to deliver justice, but a more intimate indictment: Of me, of many of you, of all the white people in America like Mark Reilly afraid, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the white privilege we choose not to see.

“And if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions,” Ford anticipates. “You should probably just get up and go.”
 

Netflix
 
How and when will our country meaningfully address and deal with racial inequality? That the way forward remains elusive is abundantly clear in the dozens of Netflix viewer comments on the film, the preponderance of which express agreement with the grand jury and an ongoing inability to understand the point of the film (the more than 300 YouTube trailer comments are even more egregious). The familiarity of this narrative demonstrates how very far we have to go before we get to the mountaintop.

To quote Bob Dylan: “Now is the time for your tears.”

The Netflix comments about Strong Island also indicate that Ford’s cinematic approach is perhaps a bit too challenging for many viewers who were expecting a more conventional film. The film’s revelations unfold from the first frame to the last with such innovative structure and narrative beauty—the term documentary is woefully inadequate as a description, Strong Island is truly indescribable and an absolute must-see.

It will be interesting to see the response to the next title in Netflix’s new subgenre of “True Crime Documentaries.” The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson is a much more conventional, far less sophisticated and—frankly—deeply problematic new film by How To Survive a Plague director David France. It hits Netflix streaming on October 6. For now: Run, don’t walk to experience the illuminating power of Yance Ford’s Strong Island.

Strong Island is now streaming on Netflix.

 

Jenni Olson is one of the world's leading experts on LGBT cinema history and a co-founder of PlanetOut.com. Her latest film project is "The Royal Road."
@JenniOlsonSF