I mean, I was a little sad – that’s the point, right?
Strong Island, by director Yance Ford, and hosted by Netflix, attempts to grasp the narrative of Jim Crow but fails to hit precise marks.
For those of us predisposed to tear up at any mention of the Black struggle, don’t be surprised: as Strong Island, like many films with racial subject matter, is a depressing tale. It uses monologues, interviews from family members and friends, and visual data to showcase the series of events before and after the death of Ford’s older brother, William. Strong Island chooses to elaborate on the case as well as director Ford’s own grievances concerning his (at the time) reluctance to talk about transgender issues with William before his death. As an overarching tale, Strong Island tells of the Ford family and their own difficulties adjusting to life in their own, segregated neighborhood.
The film is very tragic. But it must be stated that Strong Island, for its own good, seems to delve strongly into racial division without the substance to back up the claims. With the chief culprit being the situation in which William, our main subject, is killed. Ford presents us with the scenario: one month before his death, William Ford, having allowed for his car to be repaired at a shop frequented by Mark Reilly (a person that William had gotten into a scuffle with) had entered the premises, picking up a vacuum cleaner (breaking it in the process) and waved around a car door in a threatening manner. William is killed a month later on grounds of self-defense when he returns to the scene. Reilly, when police arrive, doesn’t go in handcuffs. The verdict was reached by an all-white jury.
Summed up in the most simple of terms, this is my problem with Strong Island as it applies to the case: the immediate call to a possible racist motive.
And in this pivotal part of the film, introduced to us an hour in, it’s entirely possible to call bias, assert that a self-defense charge is entirely justified, and outright deem any potential racial conflict nullified. This is the issue. It prompts a major rift in the statements of those in the film and the actual event if Ford expects the audience to to be moved to action by emotional fervor alone – and it’s unfortunate, because the audience may begin to doubt.
With self-defense seeming an almost logical conclusion, Ford uses information available to come to his brother’s aid: making phone calls to prominent officials in the case, reviewing documentation by police and recording the first-hand accounts of William’s friend, Kevin Meyer, who was present when William was killed. With the circumstances behind the murder, things can go either way.
Unless, of course, that was the point.
In which case, this vagueness, (as well as Ford’s somewhat confusing storytelling) doesn’t help. I’m still conflicted on the front of judging in terms of character and content when the real-life implications behind the documentary are, well, REAL.
But we know nothing of William’s killer. So it’s difficult to come to terms with things as they are. And while the rest of the film, giving us insight into Ford’s home life, speaking out against Southern tyranny and showcasing Yance Ford’s guilt and transgender conflicts adds variety, Strong Island leaves the viewer feeling more alienated than empathetic.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.