Digging Deep
An Interview with Strong Island director Yance Ford
by Lauren Du Graf

In 1992, Yance Ford was an art student at Hamilton College when he got the call that his brother William had been murdered. William was 24 years old, black and unarmed. His white killer never faced charges.

Yance Ford’s astonishing debut, Strong Island, is an intensely personal documentary that details the long shadow of his family’s grief. “I’m not angry,” says Ford directly to the camera in one of many unflinching extreme close-ups, expertly framed by DP Alan Jacobsen. “I’m also not willing to accept that someone else gets to say who William was.” The title references the private suffering endured by those who lose a loved one to a senseless murder with no justice, a theme explored in interviews with Ford’s family members. Strong Island is also a study of the complexity and disillusionment of black life in the suburbs of Long Island, where the Ford family retreated to Central Islip in search of better schools and opportunities.

After meeting Ford at the True/False Film Festival, I caught up him again at a cafe in Manhattan in advance of the Strong Island’s global Netflix release.

Reverse Shot: The more I read about you, the more complex a picture I get of your artistic and professional background. I recently learned, for instance, of your practice as a sculptor and welder.

Yance Ford: When I was an art student at Hamilton—not an arts school, but a small liberal arts college in the middle of upstate NY—I was interested in learning how to make things. I was a welder. I learned very basic oxyacetylene techniques, and I used that welding process to make sculpture and objects for performance pieces. I studied performance artists like Joseph Beuys and Magdalena Abakanowicz, and sculptors like Martin Puryear and Richard Serra. When people talk about the formality and the framing of Strong Island, that all traces back to my work as an art student. Working on “Maman” for Louise Bourgeois was amazing. Being able to take my family to Rockefeller Center, to see that work and to know that it was going on to the Guggenheim in Bilbao...

RS: When did you work on “Maman”?

YF: It was 2001. I will never forget that because the Modern Art Foundry welding space is at the end of Steinway Street in Queens. I was working on September 11. Because the end of Steinway Street is very close to the runways at LaGuardia, we were buzzed by planes after the towers came down. So that was nine months out of 12 in 2001. I got to a place where I needed to make more than $8.50 an hour. I started looking around for work, and found a really great job listing on idealist.org. That was my job at POV. I was hired in February 2002 and was there for 10 years.

RS: In your ten years at POV, you helped produce many remarkable films. You get a shout-out in the acknowledgments of Citizenfour, and I’m sure that’s just a drop in the bucket. From welding, to producing, to directing...

YF: I hopscotched my way to director by being the type of person that wants to do things themselves. By the time I finished explaining it to you, I could have done it myself. That’s how I naturally fit into a lot of jobs over the years.

RS: What you’ve just said reminds me of your mom’s establishment of founded Rosewood High School for girls at Rikers Island. It was an undertaking that blended entrepreneurship and public service. It’s also an act of art to create a school like that in such an environment. Perhaps we can trace echoes of this in your film.

YF: Absolutely. My mother had been the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York/Brownsville, two of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, where academic achievement is hardest to come by. She was there for 13 years, and when she finished, they invited her into the alternative school system and asked her what she would like to do. She could have done anything, but she chose to start a school on Rikers. She was aware of Island Academy —the boys’ school. But she knew there wasn’t a facility for women or girls. And so she decided what she was going to do was to open a school for women and girls on Rikers. When she first got to the Island, as they called it, she was principal of both Island Academy and Rosewood.

I am a child of civil servants. We all know that the municipal job force is how African-Americans ascend into the middle class. And so for me, unlike someone like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, municipal employees were never a drain on government. Municipal employees were what made government work. And my mother was someone who lived her ideals. She believed that education would lead to a better life. Her mother had a 4th grade education. It is not hyperbole when she says her mother had to leave school and go to work. My grandmother stripped and processed tobacco from the time she was in 4th grade until the time she stopped working in her 60s. And she still managed to put my mother and her two sisters through college. My aunt is a nurse, my other aunt is a retired teacher, and my mother was a high school principal. So my mother believed and lived the idea that education could help lift you out of circumstances of poverty or lack of opportunity.

RS: Your film is both one of the most deeply personal films I’ve ever seen, but it’s also a public story as well. You weave histories of your family, the work that they did, the decisions that they made, and their fate into a broader social framework so clearly and elegantly. Were there films that helped you discover this language, this place where the personal documentary meets a public imperative?

YF: There are filmmakers whose body of work has been a guiding light for me. I’ve said it again and again, but Marlon Riggs, Al Black, the entire body of work of Patricio Guzmán—the way he has a personal lens on historical tragedy. One of the reasons I made Strong Island is that a film can give us 20 years. When we think of Trayvon Martin’s family, or Tamir Rice’s mother and his sister—his mother was in a homeless shelter, his sister was dragged away from his brother—what do we want their lives to be like 25 years from now? We can look at Strong Island and see when your loved one dies in a vacuum, when the casual fragility of black life turns your childhood into a soap bubble—they are floating, and then they are gone. Tamir Rice was literally gone.

It’s not autobiography. Unfortunately, I have this experience. I think it can be a way to show people how we need to make different decisions, how we need to interrogate these killings in different ways. And that’s where my motivation comes from. The structure and the pacing—that’s also my editor [Janus Billeskov Jansen]. We started the film where we did because my family didn’t start with the murder. My family started with my mother looking at my dad in sixth grade. It started in Charleston, South Carolina. It started with my parents falling in love. That’s why we traced their aspirations, what they wanted for their family. My parents tried to do in one fell swoop what most black families fleeing the South in the great migration did in two generations. Most families went from the South to the city, and their children went from the city to the suburbs. My parents went South, city, suburbs in a period of about five years.

That kind of determination, to live the American dream in their lifetime was also the story of all the people I grew up with. ConEd workers, nurses, teachers, police officers, corrections officers. These are the folks who lived in my neighborhood, those are the kids I grew up with. All of our parents were civil servants. All of our parents made New York City work. It’s that ethic, and that belief that there is no shame in public service that I inherited from them.

RS: It’s a story about an “I” and a “we.”

YF: Absolutely. It’s the collective experience of Black America writ large but also writ in the fabric of redlined suburbs. There’s a commonality to what happens in the suburbs and you are told you’ll get to experience XYZ, and it’s actually not true. How do you then adjust? How do you outmaneuver being outmaneuvered? My parents ended up splitting shifts, with my father working at night and my mother working during the day, so there would always be someone home to greet us, to start us off on homework. When we were younger, my father would drop us off at my mother’s house in East New York. We would finish our homework there, and she would drive us home. As we got older, we would stay home by ourselves. Lots of black people thought they could achieve the American dream. Lots of black people found themselves in my parents’ situation. Not everyone has had to experience homicide. And that’s where the need for Strong Island came from. I don’t want to be dramatic and call it a moral obligation, but there really was an obligation.

RS: I feel like I could spend an hour talking to you about the way you use your face in the film to illustrate this. On the one hand, it’s you—your face is an expression of personal emotion. But there's also this distancing—this is what a face looks like as it grieves.

YF: It was weird. I did not want to be in the film. We shot those interviews, and I was like, we are only going to use the audio. I think it’s the biggest fool’s trick in the book for directors to film themselves and then say, oh, we’re not going to use this. We’re only shooting this so we can get audio. Ultimately, that distance, part of it is simply to bring the audience that close to a black face. And it’s the dual frequency of the film. The film works for people for whom this experience is familiar, and it affirms their experience. And it works for people to whom my family and the existence of a black middle class might be something new. This is what a black face angry looks like, and this is what a black face unapologetically angry looks like, and it was also necessary to retune the film so it wasn’t just about my mother’s grief. My mother says in the film that she hated crying in front of the grand jury, and I was like, oh, she’s telling me she doesn’t want to be the sad black woman. She doesn’t want to do that. So that meant going back and saying, okay, let’s not do the sad black woman. Let’s have my mother in her full capacity, in her full righteousness. My mother was like that all the time.

RS: You have said that making this film was the first time you had spoken to your mother and your sister, and your brother’s friend, about what had happened. What is the conversation like now?

YF: The silence came from trying to protect one another. If I don’t talk about my pain, then I won’t make their pain worse. All you wind up with is people who are alone in their own pain. Making the film was the first time we got to talk about it. It was such a freeing experience to talk about our own history with this pain, and what it was like for each of us. There were things that my mother knew that I never knew; there were things that my sister had experienced that I knew nothing about, and vice versa.

Talking to each other about this thing that fractured our family brought us closer. And we were already really close. I talked to my mother every day, every single day. But talking about this, the thing that had been the elephant in the room for so many years, really just broke down the final silence in our family. And that was a great relief to me, that before my mother died, even though she didn't live to see the film released, she knew the film was being made, she knew that my brother’s story was going to be told. That’s the thing that makes me the saddest, that she’s not here to see the response to the film. But I’m also glad that she knew I was making this, that her story and my brother’s story was going to be told.