Strong Island, a documentary chronicling the 1992 murder of first-time filmmaker Yance Ford's brother, William Ford Jr., and the effect it had on him and his family, incorporates the dynamics of a police-like procedural and gut-wrenching, upfront, self- confession. Ford grew up as a woman but more recently transitioned as a man. His transgenderism is not central to the story but (as is the case with all members of the Ford family), adds to the overall verisimilitude of the narrative, highlighting a distinctive individuality.
Ford presents the family history in a highly effective, novel way. Instead of projecting old snapshots on the full screen, the actual photos are presented by Ford in his own hand against a white backdrop, and then scooped up as various narrators relate the story behind each image.
Central to the narrative is Ford's mother, Barbara Dunmore, who was interviewed over a number of years, prior to her death (Ford's unflinching presentation doesn't shield us from viewing the mother, even when she's emaciated, lying on her deathbed). Dunmore proves to be a fascinating and tragic figure—a long time teacher who later became a principal at Thomas Jefferson HS in Brooklyn and then worked on Riker's Island educating female inmates.
We learn from Dunmore how the family moved to the black enclave of Central Islip on Long island, mainly designed for upwardly mobile, black civil servants. Dunmore hated being there as it was a segregated community. She relates how her husband, William Ford Sr., took a job as NYC subway motorman--ultimately it's the effect of their son's death that left them (as well as their two daughters) reeling. Soon after the son's death, the father had a stroke and never really recovered.
As we learn more about the victim, it becomes clear that his death is an unimaginable tragedy. Ford reads excerpts from his brother's diary and we learn he had applied to become a NYC Correction Officer. There are interviews with two former Kings County Assistant District attorneys—one of whom was a shooting victim in Brooklyn. It was William Ford Jr., a year before his death, who tackled the man who shot the ADA and held him until the police arrived.
All this takes us to the most riveting aspect of the film: the circumstances of William Ford Jr.'s death. From Yance Ford's point of view, his brother was the victim of an injustice based on racism. I would have to agree there was injustice here but am not completely sold that everything that happened was solely due to racism. It's completely understandable why Ford and his family would feel that way, and I certainly don't fault him for having those feelings.
Nonetheless, the facts of the case point to a different explanation. It's hard for the filmmaker to acknowledge that her brother used very poor judgment when he took his car to a chop shop to be repaired after the people who ran the shop were the ones responsible for the accident that damaged his car. The driver, 19 year old Mark Reilly, had assured William that the car would be repaired quickly but after a few weeks dragged on, it became clear that either Reilly and his associates had no intention of fixing the car or were simply dragging their feet. Reilly had some choice words for William's mother when she went down to the shop to make the needed inquiries—and those words were basically curses that William got wind of.
William later went down to the shop with a friend and had some choice words of his own for Reilly and the shop's owner. Yance Ford only reveals this later on but William was quite angry, threw a vacuum cleaner to the ground and picked up a car door, and assumed a menacing stance for a short time. So when William and his best friend came back on the night of April 7, 1992, it was his intention to pick the car up; unbeknownst to William, the car had already been picked up by his mother. William told the shop's owner that if he ever became an officer, he would see to it that the shop was closed down. Seconds later, he entered the shop where he was shot by Mark Reilly.
Was William shot because he was black, or as Reilly later told the grand jury (who ultimately refused to indict) because he feared for his life? It's instructive to look at the 2006 case of homeowner John Harris White, a black man who was confronted by a mob of teenagers who had a beef with his son, outside his house. Like William Ford's killer, White didn't call 911. In this case, White went outside his home and ending up shooting a 17 year old white teenager in the face, killing him. Unlike in the Ford case, there were many witnesses to the shooting, and White was convicted of manslaughter but was only sentenced to 2-4 years in prison. This outraged the victims' parents. To add insult to injury in their eyes, White was pardoned by outgoing Governor Patterson in 2010.
Both Reilly and White argued that they feared for their life. Was racism a factor in each case or fear? The bottom line is that both of these individuals had guns for self- protection, but used their firearms instead to kill innocent people, after misreading the intentions of their victims. I would argue it's the gun culture that led to tragedy in each case, not necessarily racism.
Strong Island is a must-see documentary which chronicles a family tragedy in a highly original, creative way. There is perhaps no better argument for gun control than this illuminating work of art!