Images from Strong Island, courtesy Netflix
Yance Ford is an American nonfiction filmmaker whose first feature-length film, Strong Island , was recently released by Netflix. Strong Island follows three generations of the Ford family, with the central focus being the 1992 killing of Yance’s brother William Ford, by a 19-year-old man who never faced charges for the crime (the Ford family is African-American, and the shooter is white.) We spoke on the phone late last week, ahead of a screening of Strong Island at the Brattle Theatre, which is being presented by the DocYard this Monday night.
DIG BOSTON: When talking about Strong Island with others, I’ve found myself focusing entirely on your mother, Barbara Ford. We see her speaking throughout the film, and for the vast majority of the time she’s onscreen, she’s placed in the center of her kitchen, and in the center of the frame. We eventually gain an intimate awareness of that space, up to and including the pots on the stove. How did you decide that this was how you wanted to film your mother?
YANCE FORD: Having seen thousands of documentaries at this point in my life, one thing I know is that black characters are rarely in positions of authority on screen. Most African-American filmmakers know that. I wanted to present my mother in her environment, as I saw her. The camera in this film is never a proxy for the audience. The camera in this film is reflective of the way that I see the world. And when I think of my mother, I think of her in the kitchen. And there’s no art direction, or production design—that was my mother’s kitchen. It was important for her and for everyone in this film to be in places that would be meaningful for them. So my sister was shot in one of the bedrooms in the house where she actually lives. And [William’s friend] Kevin was shot in the living room of the house where I grew up. And he’s in that black void [some interviews are conducted in front of a completely-black background], because we are together in going back in time and memory. So we see each character in a particular place for a very specific reason.
For reasons closely related to those settings, I was also thinking about storytelling traditions among American families in the 20th century. The way that Strong Island utilizes family photographs, for instance—placed in the center of otherwise blank frames, and given significant time to register with the viewer—struck me as being very connected to the way that some people, particularly matriarchs in the south, can lay out their entire family history using only language and keepsakes. Was that a tradition you were consciously trying to represent within the movie?
I think that the ability of the characters in the film to tell their own stories is so rich because of that tradition. But in the film itself, what I was trying to do was to stage the kind of testimony that did not occur in my brother’s case, because it did not proceed to trial. So each person is testifying in that way. And if I had to draw a connection for that, it would be to the testimony that happens in the black church: stand, and tell your truth. That’s what I was going for.
The photographs, for me, were the only real visual evidence that I had access to. We didn’t have access to anything that was part of the criminal investigation [of William’s death]. The coroner’s office refused to release my brother’s autopsy photos to me, even though they’re not protected by the grand jury records being sealed [it was a grand jury that chose not to indict William’s killer]. So those photographs became something like a living memory. At first, I was introducing them as evidence, as proof of life. But after my mother passed away, the number of photographs exploded … I found a lot of photographs after my mother passed away. I was looking at images of my parents that I’d never seen before. I was putting images together and realizing that there were sequences of photographs that were shot at the same time. These pictures began to tell stories. And the stories they told helped me to know how my parents came to New York, how they came to start their family, and what hopes they had for their family. Their [placement in the film] happened naturally as the result of my looking at them in this new way for the first time.
You know, I’ve got knackered hands and wrinkled fingers, my hands are a lot like my Dad’s. But there was a kind of delicateness in handling them, and that became a part of my attraction to these photos. Just because they’re so precious. They’re how the story of my parents and my life are told. They became things that I cared about very deeply, and that I still care about deeply.
I eventually considered Strong Island itself as being sort of like a family photograph—more specifically, I considered it a record of your mother, and even more specifically, as a record of her voice and her diction.
That was it. My mother’s diction is partly the result of being the child of a woman who received no education, who went to work at a young age—and despite the challenges that posed for their family, my mother and her sisters were all professional women, who went to college, and had careers. And part of my mom’s diction is that it’s a blend of the south and New York. It’s the command of language that was necessary to fight back against the things that were so much a part of everyday life in the south when she was growing up. It was part of how you stood up to Jim Crow laws: by being able to speak the queen’s English, or the king’s English, or whoever’s English, as well as if not better than the people who were trying to oppress you. That was a weapon for her. And as she got older and became a leader in the field of education, and correctional education, she was accustomed to people listening to her. And so she spoke with an authority that would not be rushed. I think that there is so much in that experience of listening to her, and the patience that it demands … it’s one of the things that helps you realize that this is not the type of crime story that you might expect. My mother spoke like that her entire life. She didn’t just start speaking like that for the movie. That was my mother.
It was one of the primary elements that contributed to my processing the movie as a family record more than as an investigation. Another element contributing to that was the fact that your film does not include either statistics or expert testimony regarding the institutional prejudices that your family members speak about. The only person who appears to be an “expert witness” is former Manhattan assistant district attorney David Breen—and by the end of the film, it’s revealed that he too has a personal relation to your family.
The only statistics that are in the film are really subtle. There are two maps shown of Long Island, and there are highlighted neighborhoods which are reflective of the African-American population on Long Island as recorded by the 1970 census. So it reflects the pockets of black communities. But otherwise, you’re right. I was determined to establish that black people are experts on their own experience. Black people have the lived and empirical evidence of their being mistreated—historically and across generations—by institutions like the criminal justice system … the statistics are there, but the challenge that we face is that we find ourselves in a time when statistics and facts and data don’t matter, or aren’t trusted. It’s like, okay great—we really have gone into The Twilight Zone.
Conversation has been edited and condensed.
STRONG ISLAND. SCREENS ON 10.16 AT THE BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. PRESENTED BY THE DOCYARD. YANCE FORD WILL BE PRESENT FOR A POST-SCREENING Q&A. 7PM. $12. THEDOCYARD.COM. THE FILM IS ALSO AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX.