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Film / Strong Island

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Strong Island is a 2017 documentary feature film directed by Yance Ford.

It recounts the murder of Yance Ford's older brother William in 1992. William Ford, a black man, was shot and killed at the age of 24 by a 19-year-old mechanic named Mark Reilly, at the auto shop where Ford's girlfriend's car was being repaired. Reilly shot Ford through the heart with a rifle but an all-white grand jury, after a less-than-enthusiastic investigation, declined to issue an indictment, and the case died. Yance Ford documents not just the murder but the continuing effects of the tragedy and how it tore apart his family.



  • Anachronic Order: Yance Ford skips around a fair bit, first sketching out the history of his family, getting up to the murder, then going back to William Ford in college, then his father's lingering death from a stroke not long after William's murder, then back to the investigation of the murder, etc. This also means that the film is over halfway through before we find out the reason for the otherwise inexplicable failure to indict Reilly: the night of the murder was William Ford's second angry confrontation at the auto repair shop, a month after he had a prior argument with Mark Reilly.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Barbara Dunmore Ford recalls her husband's view of "a rapidly declining city" as he worked as a driver of the J train in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Call-Back: The film opens with the history of the family being told over a series of Polaroids and other still pictures as Barbara Dunmore Ford reminisces. The film then ends with a last Polaroid of the three Ford siblings.
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  • Coming-Out Story: Yance Ford is a trans man who at the time of his brother's murder was still presenting as female. It's a sub-theme throughout the movie; Yance Ford expresses regrets not telling his brother before William died.
  • Documentary: Of the unpunished murder of a black man and how it devastated a family.
  • Dutch Angle: An extreme version. Late in the film Yance recounts the death of his mother Barbara, an event that is doubly shocking as Barbara Dunmore Ford was interviewed extensively for the film before her fatal stroke. This sequence is followed by a scene in which the camera leaves the hospital and travels through downtown, with the image flipped upside down, emphasizing disorientation.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: As Yance and Barbara Ford recall the harassing phone calls they received after William's murder, and the mysterious car parked outside the house, the image onscreen is a scene of the neighborhood in a pouring rainstorm.
  • Ironic Juxtaposition: The extremely sad ending of the film, as Yance Ford imagines her brother's last dying thoughts, is followed by Ray Charles with a rollicking rendition of "Let the Good Times Roll" as the credits play.
  • Lens Flare: The lens flare from the street lights at night reinforce the sense of disorientation as Yance Ford remembers driving home after her brother was killed.
  • Snow Means Death: Yance Ford's recounting of his mother's death starts out with him mentioning that it was Election Day, as the camera shows snow-covered lawns and ice hanging from roofs.
  • Stock Footage: Mostly averted, as the film is original footage, but there are a couple of home movie clips as well as a clip from The Green Hornet when Lauren explains her childhood nickname, "Kato".
  • Talking Heads: Despite the personal nature of the film the documentary is staged in a very traditional Talking Heads manner, with Ford, his mother Barbara, his younger sister Lauren, and William's friend Kevin Myers who was at the scene of the murder.
  • Titled After the Song: 1980s rap song "Strong Island", which plays over the soundtrack. The title comes from a common pronunciation of "Long Island" in the local accent.
  • The Voice: The movie opens with Yance Ford speaking on the phone with the DA who presented the case to the grand jury; she brusquely and coldly refuses to comment. Later she interviews the lead detective on the case, who, while at least agreeing to talk about the case, makes it clear that he agreed with the grand jury's decision that Mark Reilly had "reasonable fear" of William Ford.