Remembering, regretting and realizing in grief are the three Rs of crushing injustice in Yance Ford’s harrowing documentary “Strong Island.” In 1992, the filmmaker’s beloved older brother, William, 24, was shot at a shady body shop near their middle-class Long Island home by a rifle-wielding 19-year-old white mechanic.
But from the first moments after the police arrived, a tried-and-true American racial narrative of inverse victimhood played out — murder skewed as self-defense, an upstanding man made a suspect in death — and no charges were filed after a grand jury met. Filmmaker Yance Ford, a transgender man, turns a stylized lens on the effect of not just the crime on his family and himself but also of blackness lived and perceived, and of grief that wreaks havoc on telling what was from what wasn’t.
Reclaiming the life of William is one part of it — his kindness, his struggle to find himself, how quick he was to help others. Then there’s how shattering it is to hear Ford’s mother, Barbara — a dedicated teacher and devoted mother who bought into the American dream with her striving husband — describe the pervasive feeling that no law officer, prosecutor or grand juror viewed her as an injured party worthy of justice. It only served to question her whole approach to raising three black children in America.
Ford’s building blocks are familiar — archival photographs of happier times, emotionally direct interviews, scrutinized investigative details and artfully composed shots of real locations — but this is no call-to-action film or how-to guide for getting answers and moving on. As fingers move Polaroids around in the frame, or faces in jarring close-up grapple with unresolved tragedy, you realize “Strong Island” is a state-of-mind piece, surveying the wreckage from within.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica