There is an uneasiness in triumph born of tremendous loss. All of our recycled mantras about karma, good fortune and adversity seem to suggest that our struggles have an end date ― that we will see rewards for all we endure.
In some ways, Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” is a forceful refutation to that notion. The film — a sobering look at destruction wrought throughout Ford’s family after his brother, William Ford Jr., was shot and killed by a 19-year-old auto mechanic — conveys the way trauma festers and, occasionally, kills. But in some ways, Ford himself evidences the sort of karma we often romanticize: He is a diligent but embattled realist who has seen his darkest days made into moving art.
HuffPost caught up with Yance Ford to discuss the dueling emotions he experiences in this moment ― a time at which his family’s most harrowing ordeal is the subject of a widely acclaimed film that, he hopes, opens the door for filmmakers telling their truths in similar fashion.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
I think “Strong Island” is an ambitious project that makes grand arguments about failing systems and fumbling societies. But it also makes more intimate arguments about people and how we’re personally affected by these systems. I’d love to hear from you about what you set out to accomplish with this.
“Strong Island” looks at the way that the narrative of the frightening, large, scary black man has actually been a narrative that’s as old as America, and that even though we see it play out in cases that are more recent, including Trayvon Martin up to any number of cases that happen in states frequently, we have lost track of many similar incidents from the past. What “Strong Island” sets out to do is to really explore how this phantom of a menace — to incidentally quote a “Star Wars” movie — has stopped black people since the founding of this country. The face of danger in America has always been black. And despite the evidence in the film that should raise reasonable doubt about the perpetrator’s claim of fear — and reasonable fear — as being the motive for taking my brother’s life, we really begin to see that the police investigation is so heavily influenced by my brother’s weight — by my brother’s size — the amount of times he frequented the gym — that they failed to ask as many questions of the killer’s motivations as they do questions about my brother’s life.
So it’s as much about the questions that were asked about my brother as it is about the questions the were not asked about the fear of the person who killed him.
The film also looks at what it means when civil society — this institution of the criminal justice system, which is part and parcel of our democracy — fails to deliver due process of any type to families of victims who are killed in “self-defense.” So I think that the unfortunate thing is that, 26 years ago, the narratives we see playing out today were already in place. And that’s because it’s a historic narrative, and because the face of fear in America has always been a black face. And that’s what “Strong Island” really seeks to tackle and blow open for the viewer. And though it’s set in my family, and some people might have the urge to describe it or put it in the realm of personal filmmaking, I think doing that is being willfully blind to the fact that we have seen — especially over the last 10 years — person after person lose their life to people who claim they needed to kill out of fear for their own.
I kept working in the midst of what became, essentially, a cascade of these types of deaths. Yance Ford
Is this a film that you were inspired to complete in the wake of these recent spates of police violence? Did any particular killing spur this or were you committed to this project further back than that?
I have been working on “Strong Island” for 10 years, so I was in production of the film before the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. I was in production of the film before the death of Trayvon Martin. And one of the things that happened with the death of Trayvon Martin was that there were people in the film community — especially the documentary film community — who were aware that the film was in production and started talking about the need for the film because it was so timely.
Unfortunately, I knew, and I think African-Americans know, that this kind of death has always been timely; we just haven’t always had social media and cellphone cameras to make them visible to the world. So I kept working in the midst of what became, essentially, a cascade of these types of deaths. I kept my head down knowing that when the film was finished, it would be released into a world that had seen — in uninterrupted clips — the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of civilians and police officers, and that this film would help put those deaths into a historical context. But I have to say that watching those people die on social media and on the news — that had an effect on me; I would have to be inhuman for it not to. But I also knew that I had to keep my head down and finish the film if my family’s story was to contribute to the larger understanding of what a broken criminal justice system actually looks like.
To that point, I think one of the most vital aspects of the film is that it shows — despite our beliefs — that all isn’t made right in the end, and that police violence leaves grieving families in its wake who are often forgotten. Can you speak to what motivated you to show the strain your family endured after your brother’s death?
I think that there is this myth that, post-trauma, families move toward closure and that families move on — that there is, some way and somehow, a form of catharsis that happens at some point that, actually, is just a way for us, as a larger society, to move on from these killings. It was important to show the arc of every character in my film, and to show how my brother’s death affected every character in the film, as a cautionary tale. I think we are accustomed to rallying behind people in the moment and rallying around people in the immediate aftermath, but I think one of the things we need to accept is that families are going to need support from communities, health care providers, mental health care providers, and wherever else they find sources of self-care in their communities ― they’ll need that for the rest of their life. My brother’s death killed my father. My brother’s death took my mother’s life 20 years after that. My brother’s death picked up my life and picked up my sister’s life and put them down in places we could not have anticipated. And it’s important for people to see that these single instances are actually causing ripples throughout entire communities that last a lifetime.
And secondly, the importance of speaking really frankly with the detectives in the case about their investigation and attempting to speak to the assistant DA who’s involved in prosecuting the case (or, rather, presenting the case to the grand jury) is to really demonstrate how, when the police don’t ask a full set of questions, they’re essentially denying due process to the dead.
My brother did not survive an encounter in which he was unarmed — in which he did not know that his assailant was on the property — where the threat he made to the owner of the shop was actually to call the police and reveal that it was a chop shop. And by talking to the police, I think that one of the things we see in the film is that when folks grab on to a narrative and they pursue a line of inquiry that is designed to prove that narrative correct, they’re actually missing an entire set of questions.
For example, no one asked the person who killed my brother why, if he was scared to death on March 19th, he did not call the police — he did not go to the precinct — on the 20th, the 21st, the 22nd, the 23rd, the 24th, on and on. You get my point. No one asked him how he could possibly maintain a mortal fear of my brother without reaching out to the police. He was 19. Surely, if you’re afraid for your life, you go home and you tell your parents. No one asked him how he was able to sustain a homicidal fear of my brother for 24 days and then, hearing my brother outside in the garage arguing with the shop owner, make himself visible to [my brother] William. He could have stayed inside of the garage, or called the police, or closed the door or simply not have made an appearance. But no one asked about that. No one interrogated that fear.
There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t realize that, for example, I can’t remember the sound of his voice. Yance Ford
I’ve heard it said that “black art is exercise,” and I think the quote is ultimately saying that even in conveying sprawling, deeply important art pieces like your film, there’s an emotional toll paid. I see how making this film could have been cathartic, but I wonder if you experienced any emotional strain in putting this together and reliving the experience over and over.
You know, I started this film when my brother had been dead for 15 years, so in many ways, I had already incorporated his death into my day-to-day life. I knew what it was like to wake up every morning knowing that someone had gotten away with this killing and not been even brought to trial for it. I woke up every day for 15 years knowing that it had changed the course of my life forever. And the thing about being an artist, and being a black artist, is that I didn’t look to making this film as a source of catharsis or to exorcise any kind of grief or pain around my brother’s death, because I think that implies there is a terminal point of grief or a terminal point for the feeling of loss. Those are things I’m going to be living with my entire life. Making the film has helped me put those things into better perspective, but there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about my brother. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t realize that, for example, I can’t remember the sound of his voice. And so I think because I have nothing to lose by telling the whole story — by showing the full truth — it is a blistering experience. It is a raw, honest experience, and it actually is helpful to make a blisteringly honest film.
That raw honesty you talk about ― particularly as it relates to the trauma you experienced ― seemed vital in the making of this film. It kind of colors everything discussed within.
If I held back in any way, I think I would be struggling to deal with it. But because I put everything into the film — because I didn’t try to portray my brother as a perfect person, because I didn’t ultimately decide to protect my sister and leave her out of the film, because I decided to take the chance of bringing myself closer to the audience than they could ever get to me with their actual human eye, it doesn’t feel like a burden.
The work is being done by the film. I’ll tell you what is heavy, though: What’s heavy is the number of times that I’ve been to screenings, since January of last year, where at least one person stands up — people of all races and all nationalities — and talks about their experience of having lost someone to homicide. They’ve lost someone to an unpunished crime: domestic violence, random crime, you name it. There are people all over this world who are living with the aftermath of violence as a regular state. It is just a reality for them. And knowing that that is multiplied by a factor of 10 in the black community is part of why I’m so determined to make sure as many people see this film as possible.
You’ve spoken previously about your upbringing and how you recently learned your brother knew you were gay, and he set up protections for you to insulate you from torment. I found that profound, because often, we hear about black people having a particular aversion to the LGBT community. What did it mean to you to learn that your brother was not only accepting of your identity, but that he actively worked to make sure you felt safe among others?
It was everything, honestly. It was actually really funny: I brought everyone from the block where I grew up to the Walter Reade theater during the New Directors/New Films festival, and [family friends] Kevin Myers and Harvey Walker were in the audience and ultimately joined us onstage for the Q&A. And at a certain point, Kevin said to me, in front of 300 people, “I hate to break it to you, Yance, but William knew that you were gay.” And I was like, “What?!” (Laughs). And Kevin said my brother told his friends, “Listen, I’m taking Yance to the prom. I’m taking Yance to the winter formal. I’m doing this; nobody’s dating my sister because X.” But the wonderful thing about the community in which I grew up, and the wonderful thing about the consistency of that community, is that those guys knew when I didn’t know they knew. And they were as protective of my sister and I the day after William told them about my sexual orientation as they are accepting of my gender identity now. We’re talking about some folks who are in their late 70s and early 80s. They can wrap their minds around me — a person they’ve known since 1973 — finally being out in the world as who I am.
And I think that, having been a child of parents who talked about aunts and uncles who were “that way,” and talked about people in their family not being cast out, I think that what has happened in the black community is that we’ve gone from a holistic acceptance of our families and our family members for who they are to a rejection that has been largely influenced by evangelical Christianity. And evangelical Christianity is a very different type of Christianity than the traditional Baptist church, and the Baptist church that was guided by a liberation theology. You know, the Southern Baptist tradition that allowed for an openly gay man — Bayard Rustin — to be the architect of the March on Washington. So that is one of the things that I am most proud of, that the film actively pushes back against the convenient stereotype of the black community as more phobic and hateful than any other community in the world.
Can you describe the significance of your Oscar nomination, considering you’re the first transgender director to receive this honor? I imagine there’s great pressure in being the first anything, so what are you feeling in this moment? Do you consider this an opening for other transgender filmmakers who want to tell their stories?
Two things happened on the morning the nominations were announced. The first was that I freaked out because I’d been nominated for an Oscar. It’s huge, and some people work entire careers without ever being nominated for an Oscar, and I sort of felt like that moment was a huge validation by our peers of the work that so many incredibly talented people had done to make this film a reality.
Being the first transgender director nominated for an Oscar in a year when you have the first transgender actress nominated for an Oscar; the first woman cinematographer; Dee Rees is the first African-American woman to be nominated for the screenwriting award; and of course, Jordan Peele having the triple nomination for “Get Out.” I feel like there are some people who don’t want to be poster children, and I’m certainly not saying that’s the status I’m going for, but I think I can be out and not lose my job, not lose my apartment, not have my family and friends disown me. If I can, by being the first nominated transgender director, bring a level of normalcy to people who don’t have enough imagination to realize that gender is not a binary, then I’m happy about that. If I can help one family think for a moment and pause before they put their kid out, then I’m happy about that. If I can help remind people that the transgender community is subject to violence at greater rates than any other community in the country, then I’m happy about that. But I’m also happy that my transgender identity reminds us that we need to have a broader definition of diversity. I don’t like to talk about diversity as much as I like to talk about inclusiveness, because as we’ve seen in “Black Panther,” everybody loves to go to the movies and see something that they can identify with — something they can relate to — and those movies make money. So I think that, if nothing else, this particular moment is a zeitgeist of people realizing that inclusive behind-the-camera talent doesn’t mean less quality films, it actually means greater quality films and a bigger audience.
“Strong Island” is now streaming on Netflix.