NEW YORK: In the Oscar-nominated documentary “Strong Island,” Yance Ford investigates the killing of his brother, William Ford, in 1992 in Central Islip, New York. Ford, a 22-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a 19-year-old white man – a mechanic named Mark Reilly – after a verbal altercation.An all-white grand jury declined to indict Reilly and the investigation has remained sealed.
Ford’s film is a kind of investigative memoir that burrows into not only the justice of his brother’s death but also the still-quaking reverberations his loss has had on their family.
Much of the film’s power comes from the raw, emotional first-person filmmaking of Ford, a 44-year-old former producer for the PBS documentary program “POV,” making his feature film debut.
Ford dares viewers to analyze their own biases, fears and tolerance for injustice.
Ford, the first transgender filmmaker nominated by the Academy, spoke about making “Strong Island” and making Oscar history.
AP: Did you always know that you would take this deeply personal approach in “Strong Island”?
Ford: It turned into this realm of a personal film because in the absence of due process, in the absence of justice, the personal film is the only thing that you have left. My producer Joslyn Barnes says it really well when she says personal filmmaking is the language of the dispossessed ...
AP: Has there been any catharsis for you in making the documentary?
Ford: Grief is a very complicated monster ... but one of the things that I am really happy about is “Strong Island” has pushed something that is consistently sidelined back into our conversation: Why it’s so easy to take the life of black people in the United States and be unpunished for it. What systemic bias looks like when it’s lived by ordinary people is this. It looks like my family.
AP: Your film very directly asks the audience to question itself.
Ford: [Film theorist Scott MacDonald] pointed out that I’ve brought the audience closer to my face than anyone can actually get with the human eye. So you really do have to confront blackness ... I wanted to be talking to each individual in the audience.
AP: Have you heard from any of the authorities?
Ford: (Laughs) No. No, and I don’t expect to. [The] Suffolk County criminal justice system is in trouble right now. The police chief was arrested – I won’t even list what he was arrested for – but the DA was also arrested.
AP: You made history as the first trans filmmaker ever nominated for an Oscar. What did that mean to you?
Ford: ... I’m incredibly proud to be the first trans director to be nominated for an Oscar. I’m also incredibly proud to occupy a place in what is actually a historic class of nominees for many reasons – to share the space with Daniela Vega, (a trans actress whose “A Fantastic Woman” is nominated for best foreign language film), the oldest woman to be nominated (Agnes Varda) and the first woman to be nominated in cinematography (Rachel Morrison). Steve James’ nomination is historic. Firas Fayyad with ‘Last Men in Aleppo,’ his nomination is historic. So much that cracked open this year.