Strong Island (2017)


Bil’s rating (out of 5):   BBB.  

USA/, 2017.  , , .  Cinematography by .  Produced by , Yance Ford.  Music by , .  Film Editing by .  Academy Awards 2017.  Gotham Awards 2017.

Twenty five years after the murder of a young man named William Ford, filmmaker revisits the judicial nightmare that followed his death and the effect it had on their family.  Biographical details about the late William’s life are related by Ford’s mother Barbara, who tells us about meeting her husband, their early years of marriage and William’s childhood before siblings Yance and  came along.  In 1992, William entered a mechanic’s auto body shop and had words with its owner that led to his being shot to death; the police investigating the matter put an emphasis on William’s previous troubles with the law, treating the deceased like a suspect and not the victim, while the shooter was acquitted by an all white-jury on the basis of self-defense.  The details of the case are complicated and challenging, the plot thickening as Barbara tells us that William had never gotten into any trouble before his death, while his best friend tell us that William had attacked the man who eventually killed him in a previous altercation.  Ten years in the making, this simultaneously personal and political documentary is moving and disturbing, but ti has trouble deciding upon a central topic, among them Barbara’s understanding of justice and morality being destroyed by the injustice which her son was treated after his death, Yance Ford’s own personal journey as a trans man, and the shadow cast on this journey by his experience with the law since William’s death.  More generally, the legal quagmires faced by African Americans in the American justice system and in matters of law enforcement are examined, as is the cultural assumption of violent African American men that saw an unarmed man’s murder being treated as self-defense.  Ford’s practiced and performed monologues make for awkward tonal shifts away from Barbara’s frank and engaging interviews, while it sometimes feels like the themes related to William’s death are emphasized in a general manner in favour of soft-pedaing biographical detals.  There’s an interesting contradiction to William, he was interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement but also had trouble with the law, and while they don’t justify his being killed, and it’s understandable that his brother wants to present this aspect of him in the least critical light, it all results in a film that leaves you with more questions than answers by the time it’s over.

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