Strong Island


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Strong Island - Examining the violent death of the filmmaker’s brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free, this documentary interrogates murderous fear and racialised perception, and re-imagines the wreckage in catastrophe’s wake, challenging us to change.
"Goes against the grain of modern crime documentaries." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

William Ford was 24 when he was shot dead. His parents had fled the Jim Crow-era deep south and set up home on Long Island where they thought their kids would have a better chance in life. They'd both worked long hours to put them through Catholic school. William wanted to become a prison officer and had been putting himself through a tough dieting regime in an attempt to pass the medical. When she went to court to come face to face with the white man who killed him, his mother says here, she was afraid that white people would assume she was a negligent mother whose son could never have amounted to anything.

That was in 1992. The man who killed William was never properly tried. "A clear case of self defence," said one of the men who worked on the case. Now, William's younger brother Yance has grown up, had some time to process his grief, and decided to investigate what really happened that day. He doesn't pretend to be objective. He doesn't see why the killer should have a voice. But nevertheless, what he discovers challenges his assumptions and complicates his understanding of what happened. In the process, it renders his brother more human and lets us see the tragedy of the situation all the more clearly.

This Oscar-nominated documentary has a lot in common with 2015's The Witness, in which the brother of Kitty Genovese investigated her murder, because it is not only an investigation of events themselves but also an exploraton of their impact on a family. In this, it goes against the grain of modern crime documentaries. Extensive time is taken to talk about who William was and how he fitted into the world. Because Yance is himself in the film, we can observe the way it has shaped his own behaviour as we watch interviews with friends and oher family members, something that ironically reduces his control over the narrative. Whilst facts are presented in a manner deliberately designed to make viewers sit up halfway through and question what they thought they knew, the emotional side of it develops naturally.

To Yance, there is one pivotal question at the heart of the case: when is it reasonable to shoot someone because you are afraid? If self defence can apply before there has been any direct physical interaction, what kind of provocation can justify it, and does what a jury considers to be provocative differ depending on race?

Beautifully shot and full of subtle nuances, Strong Island is intriguing throughout. Its flaws end up working in its favour and adding to its evocative power, because things are almost always more complicated - and more human - than they seem.

Reviewed on: 13 Feb 2018
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Strong Island packshot
The filmmaker investigates the shooting of his brother.

Director: Yance Ford

Year: 2017

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US, Denmark

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