This deeply personal film finds horror in the fact that a murder has been stripped of its horror. Yance Ford’s brother was gunned down by a white mechanic, despite the fact that he was not armed or being aggressive. The grand jury did not indict his killer because they believed he did it in self-defence, so the case never went to trial. So many stories like this have been told over the years that it’s practically ubiquitous—hence, why I see some people complaining that Ford’s story did not warrant a documentary. But that’s the very reason why Yance Ford made this documentary: to show that, despite the ubiquity of racial violence and the repeated failures of the American legal system, these individual stories do not deserve to be homogenised and turned into statistics, to be forgotten when the next victim’s body is found. Furthermore, these tragedies do not happen in bubbles. Families who’ve lost their loved ones due to racial violence suffer from the grief and trauma for years and years, the consequences of a fatal gunshot rippling through their daily existence until they exist no more. In Strong Island, Yance chronicles how abruptly and irrevocably his family fell to pieces in the wake of his brother’s murder, starting with his father’s early death a year after the tragedy, right until the death of his mother (who is extensively interviewed here, but sadly died five years before this documentary was released on Netflix).
Yance’s unflinching filmmaking is deceptively simple in execution: interviews with family and friends, scenes of him on the phone, reading his brother’s diary or shuffling through a series of family photos, and stark close-ups of his face as he movingly relays his personal feelings directly to the camera—to us. The lack of gimmicks allows maximum immersion into this story, where visceral human emotion and fragments of the past are enough for us to see the personhood of both the victim and the family he left behind. The only thing that Strong Island doesn’t do very well is establish the facts of the case. The timeline of the crime, for instance, is not delineated with the greatest clarity, so trying to follow along with what happened (and why) is not very easy. This may have been done on purpose, though, since this isn’t an investigative procedural, nor does Yance ever try to contact the killer for answers. This is more about the Ford family mourning the loss and refusing to allow it to be forgotten. It is also about Yance using the contours of the memoir to finally give his brother the justice that he was denied all those years ago. Therein lies its undeniable power.