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OPINION

The power to touch the soul and bear witness

‘Strong Island’ — the story of a young Black man killed by a white man — is quiet, incisive, almost unspeakably moving, and an urgently important film to watch.

Yance Ford's film is eloquent in its silences, with long shots inside the Fords’ home, where the only movement is a window blind lifting and falling in the breeze. The pain is inexpressible.
Yance Ford's film is eloquent in its silences, with long shots inside the Fords’ home, where the only movement is a window blind lifting and falling in the breeze. The pain is inexpressible.Dia Dipasupil/Getty

Here is what art can do.

In 1992, in a quiet suburb on Long Island, N.Y., Yance Ford’s 24-year-old brother, William Ford Jr., was the victim of a homicide — a young Black man shot by a white man. Although there was never any doubt about the killer’s identity, the grand jury failed to return an indictment. The emotional cost to the Ford family was profound.

Yance Ford, a documentary filmmaker, spent a decade making a film about William’s death and its aftermath. (Full disclosure: I have known Yance since we met at an artists colony in 2012.) Released in 2017, “Strong Island” — available on Netflix — won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. It is quiet, incisive, almost unspeakably moving, and an urgently important film to watch.

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There is no authoritative narrator telling you what to think and feel. The story of William Ford’s life and death is told by different people who knew him. There’s the friend who was with him the night he was killed. There’s the younger sister who remembers his kindness. There’s Yance Ford, both coolly objective and passionately intimate, whether conducting interviews or speaking directly to the camera.

But the film’s moral and emotional core is their mother, Barbara Dunmore Ford.

She sits in her kitchen, remembering what her son looked like lying in his coffin. “Even then I was saying, ‘Wait until we get to court.’ This is a young man who’d never been in trouble in his life. Wait until we get to court.”

But the case never got to court. Barbara Ford remembers testifying to the grand jury while jurors were reading magazines, knitting, talking among themselves. “Serving on a grand jury is one of the greatest privileges of citizenship in this country,” she says. “But they weren’t paying attention, they didn’t give a damn. And I will believe until the day I die that they didn’t care because my son was a young man of color.”

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She talks about coming as a young woman from the South to New York, where she became a teacher, eventually establishing a school for women prisoners on Rikers Island. She and her husband decided that they could give their children a better upbringing if they moved out of the city to Long Island. The camera lingers on the house and its idyllic-looking surroundings: rustling trees, lawn sprinklers, quiet streets with wide sidewalks. There are family photographs: birthday parties, graduations.

And then we get the story of William’s killing. A fender-bender with a white man who turns out to work in a chop shop, and says he’ll fix the damage. Delays. Finally, a nighttime visit to the garage by William and his friend to try to pick up the car. Heated discussion in the parking lot. The white man goes into the garage; William follows; the white man shoots him in the heart with a .22 rifle. The police don’t handcuff the shooter. But they take William’s friend, also a Black man, down to the station for questioning. “We were not received as the parents of a victim,” Barbara Ford says. “What they spent time on was investigating his background.”

The failure ran all through the justice system. The DA and the police presented the case to the all-white grand jury as justifiable self-defense, even though William Ford had been unarmed. In Yance Ford’s words: “Your killer will make you out to be a monster and people will believe him.”

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Through his mother’s recollections, and through readings from William’s diary, the film conveys William’s character. Ironically, he was hoping to begin training as a corrections officer. On the day he died, he was actually in court, testifying as a prosecution witness: A DA had been shot on a New York street and William, a bystander, had chased down and tackled the shooter. “He was very brave, a hero,” the police investigator in that case tells Yance Ford.

We need news stories. We need history books. We need arguments to bring about change. But “Strong Island” reminds us that art has its own unique power to touch the soul, and to bear witness.

After William’s killing, Barbara Ford says, “The house had a stillness unlike anything I’ve ever felt in my life. It was like all the sound left the world.” The film is eloquent in its silences. Long shots inside the Fords’ home, where the only movement is a window blind lifting and falling in the breeze. The pain is inexpressible.

But at the same time, Barbara Ford puts it into words. “How do you know when and what to do differently?” she wonders. “I did William a great disservice in raising him the way we did, because we always tried to teach you guys that you see character, and not color. And many, many times I’ve wondered how I could be so wrong.”

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