' ' Cinema Romantico: Strong Island

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Strong Island

Netflix’s 2017 documentary “Strong Island” opens with its director, Yance Ford, calling the prosecutor who, 25 years ago, failed to bring charges against the killer of Ford’s then 24 year old brother, William Ford Jr. The brusque lawyer explains she has nothing to say, either on camera or off of it. Yance hangs up, defeated. This might have triggered a cinematic version of the NPR podcast Serial, an amateur re-investigation to uncover overlooked truth. That is not what happens, not exactly. Though the circumstances surrounding William Ford Jr.’s death, in which he was shot by a young white man, Mark Reilly, claiming self-defense, are re-visited, the journey is less into the facts of the case, so to speak, than into the heart of the Ford family and, by extension, into the heart of America, which is still scorched by a racial divide regardless of civil rights progress. That truth is difficult to reckon with, which makes it tough for some to admit to, and, as if sensing this, Yance Ford, speaking directly to the camera in the opening passages, intones “if you’re uncomfortable with me asking these questions, you should probably get up and go.” Some might, and some might not even start watching at all, but the ensuing film is as powerful as it is necessary, and necessarily challenging, a sensation underscored by how Yance will often fade to black during talking head interviews before cutting right back to the same interview, as if gathering strength to keep going. They do and you should.

If Yance successfully reclaims his brother as a person, not a statistic, William Ford Jr., as his name implies, is an outgrowth of his family, and so post-prologue, Yance takes us back to the Ford family’s beginning, in which his father and mother left Jim Crow South for New York. These memories are re-visited principally through photographs, many of which Ford himself appears to take and tack to a wall, as if highlighting particular reminiscences, many of which are notable for the wide smiles on faces, from old to young. This was a happy family, and interviews bear this out. Yet photos possess multitudes of truth, and “Strong Island” gradually allows the Fords’ struggles to rise. A family friend says that William’s experiences at Rikers Island, where his mother Barbara taught, opened his eyes to black people still in “bondage”, and fueled a dream of becoming a corrections officer. And Barbara, whose talking head interview is conducted from her kitchen, a domestic tranquility juxtaposed against the emergent harsh truths, admits regretting teaching her kids to see character before color.

That line carries serious weight. That William Ford Jr. is shot by Mark Reilly happens because the former’s car is damaged and taken to an auto repair store revealed as something closer to a chop shop where the latter works. And when, after weeks of his car going un-repaired, William goes to the shop in a confrontational mood, he winds up getting killed. Precisely what transpired is impossible to know since no one witnessed it other than the two involved, though William’s family and friends are certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was killed, and that the grand jury declined to indict Reilly, because he was black. If the grand jury’s motives might have been more nuanced, at least based on what the detective who worked the case tells Yance by phone, it is nevertheless difficult to eliminate race from the equation, both in a macro and micro sense.

Familiarity breeds contempt goes a saying, but so might unfamiliarity, which is what “Strong Island” suggests by demonstrating how even as the Fords escaped Jim Crow they did not necessarily escape segregation. The Central Islip neighborhood of Long Island where the Fords moved after leaving the city might have appeared idyllic but this ultimately proved a false serenity that Yance brings home by contrasting shots of an ice cream truck, its music tinkling, slowly cruising down lilting, tree-lined streets, with a voiceover explaining how schools were not as good and taxes were much higher. What’s more, talking heads and stark white maps illustrate how Central Islip was deliberately isolated from white neighborhoods, inherently stoking fear between blacks and whites, a fear that William’s friend said they felt outside their community, a fear that no doubt permeated Mark Reilly the night he found himself face to face with William, a fear that merely hardens the more we refuse to acknowledge its existence. And in the frequent close-ups he grants himself, where his face, his black face, fills the frame in up close close-ups, too close close-ups, Yance Ford forces us to acknowledge that fear. His own, yes, sure, but also ours.

No comments: