In 1992, Yance Ford’s brother William was murdered in a Long Island suburb. While reports of young black men being shot without consequence are part of the common conversation now, 25 years ago it was not the sort of story we paid attention to. But William is getting the attention he deserves in Strong Island, a documentary Yance made about the crime and its impact on his family. Yance is bringing the film to the Montclair Film Festival and is taking part in the “Emerging Black Voices” panel discussion on May 6.
At the time of William’s death, Yance and I were students at Hamilton College, where we’d become friends in our freshman-year dorm. I’ve been following the path of Strong Island on social media, which has included some major news: the film won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and Netflix bought the film for worldwide streaming later this year.
When I saw that Yance would be at the MFF discussing the film, I was thrilled to get a chance to interview him about the making of Strong Island. An edited version of our conversation follows.
When did you start Strong Island? When did you finish it?
My brother’s murder really started making its way into my work at Hamilton, as an art major, doing performance art pieces within months after he died. The work was rough as I continued to work through his death. But the film and my skill set came together in the early aughts. I began thinking very seriously about making a film. I was working interesting day jobs and ended up at the series POV, where I got to watch really amazing filmmakers do their work. So I worked up the courage to say, ‘OK, I’m starting this.’ I did my first interview in May 2008, got a grant on the basis of that interview, started working with my cinematographer, Alan Jacobsen, in 2010, and wrapped at the end of September 2016. From the time when I sat down in front of my computer and seriously took notes to when I got off the plane from Copenhagen with the locked picture it was 10 years.
It’s been a full-on press for a decade. It’s funny, because in the decade that’s passed, a lot has changed. The introduction of Facebook, the iPhone, social media—stories like my brother’s, which happened in a small Long Island suburb, it couldn’t have the national visibility that Trayvon Martin’s killing had toward the latter part of production of the film. I think how William falls in the line of murders that have been perpetrated in the name of self-defense for generations. We see them now because of technology, and I’m grateful for that. But I had to tell a story that had almost no archival footage, no surveillance video. It was a challenge for me to make the past as alive as I could. I had to construct images of things I wasn’t there to see.
What’s the most striking reaction you’ve gotten to Strong Island so far?
I think the one reaction I’ve noticed most often is the reaction of silence during screenings of the film. There were 1,200 people at our first screening, we had four or five screenings at Sundance, four or five in Berlin, and each time I was struck by how much the audience was sucked into the film. And I’m glad for that, that it’s an immersive experience. We want to invite the audience in. People are really getting the direct-to-camera conversation, and I think they’re experiencing the film as a conversation. The silence that comes out of that is very striking to me.
What will you be doing at the MFF?
We are screening the film, which I’m really excited about, and having a Q&A afterward. We’re also having a panel with Iyabo Boyd, who produced For Ahkeem, and Sabaah Folayan, who directed Whose Streets? The three of us are on a panel called “Emerging Black Voices.” I know the Montclair Film Festival has a partnership with the American Black Film Festival, which has really worked to diversify the audience for the festival.
Tell me about landing the Netflix deal.
I did not land anything! I simply held my breath for the duration of Sundance. My producer and sales agent, they talked to Netflix and arrived at an agreement that would ensure that my brother’s story will be known around the world. It’s upwards of 100 million subscribers. That’s amazing for me. Their distribution means the film will travel without me. People won’t need me, won’t need a festival, won’t need a rarefied experience to get this story. Strong Island gets to go into communities and affirm that people are not crazy, that the things that they suspect are influencing the ways certain deaths are investigated are, in fact, present.
Strong Island is screening at the Montclair Film Festival on May 6 at 4pm and May 7 at 1.45pm; the “Emerging Black Voices” panel is May 6 at 1pm. Get more information and tickets at montclairfilmfest.org.
Photo: Simon Luethi