Ford’s film—about the racially-charged killing of his brother William in 1992 and what his death did to the Ford family—not only earned Oscar recognition, but prizes from Sundance, Frameline and other festivals, as well as multiple Cinema Eye Honors. Next month the Netflix documentary could continue its awards run with an Emmy nomination.
“There’s a range of reactions” to the film, Ford tells Deadline. “I get people who share stories of homicides in their family—and the races of those people vary…I get thanked by queer people of color for showing a family that loves their masculine-presenting queer child, which is a stereotype about the black community that I think needs to be broken at every possible opportunity.”
Ford adds, “That whole experience of the American Dream being a bait and switch for black Americans is something I get thanked about profusely.”
The American Dream for Ford’s parents was to leave the racist South in the 1960s to make a life and raise their children in the putatively more welcoming North—in their case the community of Central Islip on Long Island.
Yance Ford’s mother became an educator. His father, William Ford Sr., worked the night shift as an MTA motorman. William Ford Jr. was an aspiring corrections officer, who had recently put his life in danger to save a white man shot during a robbery.
“This family did all the right things,” executive producer Danny Glover observed at a Q&A in January. “This family thought and believed that by doing the right things—by just excluding the fact that race does play an issue in this whole thing [the American experience], a huge part of what happens to us—and saying, ‘If we do the right thing the people will judge us by who we are.’”
That illusion came to a shattering end the night of April 7, 1992 when William was shot to death by Mark Reilly, a 19-year-old white employee of the Super Stang Auto Body shop in Central Islip. A car owned by Ford’s girlfriend had been under repair there and delays in the work had led to a simmering dispute between Ford and Reilly. At one point in the weeks before the fatal shooting William had thrown a piece of a car in the shop in frustration; Reilly had allegedly hurled insults about Ford’s mother.
Reilly was arrested for manslaughter but claimed he had acted in self-defense out of “reasonable fear.” An all-white grand jury apparently accepted that version of events and voted not to indict Reilly.
For many viewers of Strong Island, the circumstances of William Ford’s death echo the more recent cases of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Eric Garner in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida and other young unarmed black men killed by white people—either civilians or members of law enforcement.
“This violence against black people is generations old,” the director comments. “I think that young people, when they see that, it helps them to understand how this needs to be deconstructed, how it needs to be destroyed, how the irrational fear of black people is something that has always been the underpinning for self-defense laws, has been the underpinning for the evolution of police departments, frankly. We know that they started as units that were constructed to chase and capture and return runaway slaves.”
Ford made the decision not to include any image of Reilly in Strong Island.
“He doesn’t need to be in the film,” Ford explains. “This is not a film about offering him redemption or forgiveness. I think he should seek that from whatever god he worships. The film is about this series of events that he sparked. And it’s true that for black Americans for whom the criminal justice system continues to fail that on a very basic level, white Americans can act with impunity and do things that a black American would spend many, many years in jail for, if not a lifetime.”
The film does not attempt to portray William Ford Jr. as utterly blameless in the actions he took before the night of the fatal shooting.
“I think it’s a challenge for people to listen and to understand that there are no perfect victims, which is the thing that we hang on to when the failure to arrive at a reasonable justification is evident,” Ford states. “What we then turn to are the personal failings of the dead person which could not possibly have been known to anyone in the situation at the time…The film is really transparent about my brother’s behavior. But the film is also really transparent about how little the police knew and how little I think that they bothered to investigate.”
It took Ford 10 years to complete his documentary. While at heart it is a deeply personal story, the filmmaker says his point was to get at systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
“My concern is that Strong Island introduce the need for us to interrogate this ‘reasonable fear,’” Ford asserts. “We have forgotten that the standard is reasonable fear, not simply ‘fear.’ We have forgotten that it is incumbent upon the district attorney’s office and the police department to do adequate investigations and presentations before grand juries because the person who’s on the other side of this ‘each story has two sides’ is dead. And the dead cannot speak for themselves.”