Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 01, 2017 7:27 pm 
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A searingly intense and complex film about a brother's killing and a family's pain

Strong Island is a documentary not of the kind that cooly informs us but of the autobiographical and otherwise intensely personal kind. A somewhat incongruous comparison might be with Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect, his exploration of his famous father, Louis Kahn. Yance Ford is exploring his family, and a single event that changed, perhaps destroyed it: the murder of his brother William a quarter century ago, when he was 23 and Yance was 18 and a sophomore at Hamilton College, by a 19-year-old white man, a mechanic in a Long Island body and "chop" (illegal spare parts) shop whose vehicle William had crashed into some time before. The events that followed are an example of racism in America and the difficulty and danger of being African American. This is a searing, powerful film.

This is also the story not just of a murder that went unpunished by a white grand jury that brought no charge but of a family, and of being gay, or being black, and how these things intertwine. Yance, one of two sisters who has since become a transgender male, is exploring his own identity. He goes through many snapshots that record the early lives of his parents - handsome, promising, and happy people, and of himself, his sister, and his brother (who never learned that he was gay). The most powerful speaker is their mother, Barbara, a teacher who became a principal and then started her own school for young women at Riker's Island, where his brother William eventually taught for a while. This experience he thinks altered William's sunny nature in the realization that there were others like him who were not yet free, still slaves.

Yance's father had a stroke after William's death and not long later died. His mother seems to have given up hope. This was a peaceful black family unfamiliar with jail sentences and violence and this tragedy was devastating.

Interviews with close friends of William, including Kevin Myers, who was with him when he died, suggest that William drank and went to strip clubs and perused Playboy but he never got into real trouble. He was a gentle giant, a large and slightly overweight young man whose last project, detailed in his journal, which Yance shows and reads from, was to lose enough weight to qualify to train to become a corrections officer. He failed, but appealed the decision, and an irony of this scrupulously detailed film is that saved documents show six weeks after his death his appeal was granted and he was reclassified as qualified - too late.

The three Ford siblings' parents, who met in high school (but Barbara was aware of and in love with William Sr. long before), came from the Jim Crow South and lived in Brooklyn, among elderly Jewish women, which Barbara loved. She was disappointed when they moved to a nice, pleasant and inexpensive house in Long Island because it was in a black part of Long Island that was in effect a ghetto, but it pleased William Sr. to escape New York City because in his work as a train driver he saw the ugliest parts of it and wanted to get out.

There are many other ironies in this rich account. William might have been a fine correctional officer. We hear about an ADD (Assistant District Attorney) who was robbed and shot at an ATM; William chased the killer and brought him down. The ADD was gravely wounded, but was saved. The Brooklyn Bridge was shut down so he could be rushed to emergency care. When William was shot, police and hospital negligence due to his race insured that he was not saved.

At William's funeral Barbara felt convinced that William's killer would be punished, but she was to be powerfully disabused of this notion. Her appearance at the grand jury, where some of the all white group were reading magazines and ignoring her testimony, convinced her otherwise and she concludes, on camera, that her teaching of her children to be race-neutral in judgment was wrong. By implication, they ought to have been taught that the white man is the enemy. It seems also that William made a grievous error to begin with with Mark Reilly. He hit Reilly's car. Reilly said that if he would not report the accident he would repair William's car for free. He should have had nothing to do with Reilly and realized that he was on dangerous ground with him from the start.

Another irony of the film is that while it may seem to viewers that Yance Ford is setting out to show his brother's innocence this is not what happens. His brother secretly told him how he had menaced Mark Reilly, the mechanic, with a car door and a vacuum cleaner, and Yance should have told him he was being stupid but instead rejoiced that he was being a bad-ass. Yance counts himself as therefore sharing in the guilt of William's death. The implication is that, as a police investigator reveals to Yance, evidence shows William was sufficiently provocative and threatening to suggest, to the white grand jury at least, that Mark Reilly may have been in danger, even if shooing William was not necessary. Nevertheless that William and his friend became the principal suspects in William's death was a typical absurdity of an unjust, racially biased system.

Ford is a former producer of PBS’s documentary program “POV,” spent many years working on this film. Far from the detached, non-invasive kind of documentary, this one features its maker in extreme closeup, glaring angrily into the camera and weeping after phone conversations with unhelpful officers. Yet this lack of conventional "professionalism" is offset by elegant minimalism in the shooting and by rigorous research.

Strong Island, 107 mins., debuted at Sundance, receiving a Special Jury Award for Storytelling there; and has been in other festivals including the Berlinale, True/False, and New Directors/New Films, and it was as part of the latter that it was screened for this review.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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