Director: Yance Ford
Cast: Yance Ford, Barbara Dunmore Ford
Watch Strong Island online in the UK: Netflix UK
It says a lot about the tragic state of the world that the notion of a documentary about the death of a young black man in America can almost seem familiar. Strong Island, though, makes the horror of loss all too alarmingly fresh: this is unlike any true crime documentary you’ve seen. That the same could be said of Netflix’s other notable original acquisition this year, Casting JonBenet, is testament to the streaming giant’s commitment to innovative and important documentaries, but even more so to director Yance Ford’s astonishingly raw film-making.
Where a typical documentary might see the shooting investigated in chronological fashion, with evidence gradually unearthed, Strong Island is a devastatingly personal account – William Jr., who was shot at a garage 25 years ago, was Yance’s brother. Yance turns the camera not just on that event but on the family, capturing their frustration at not receiving justice from the police or the legal system, conveying their inescapable sorrow, and cycling back to William’s murder with new understanding and a building wave of tragedy.
The talking heads are hugely effective, shot with an affection and intimacy that allows Yance’s mother to be herself – wonderfully caring, hugely resilient and fiercely passionate, she’s worth watching the film for alone. The rest of the movie, though, is no less masterful. The most powerful moments, in fact, come when Ford turns the camera inwards: scrutinising close-ups see Yance answer questions with fearless honesty and nowhere to hide, turning what could have been an investigation about what happened that fateful night into a more profound and haunting study of grief itself.
The immediacy of that weight turns the specific story of one sad incident into universal, powerful cinema, one that asks damning questions about why society allows these things to happen, why an all-white jury set William’s shooter free, why an unarmed black man was treated as the main suspect in his own death. Yance’s mother, at one point, reflects that she tried to raise her children as judging people based on their character not their colour. Was she wrong? Dazzlingly unique in its harrowing construction – and deconstruction – of race and bereavement, this bracingly subjective piece of art will stay with you for days.
Strong Island is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.