Strong Island: Documentary Filmmaking as a Coming-of-Age Tale

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Strong Island: Documentary Filmmaking as a Coming-of-Age Tale

by Jaylan Salah

It’s always the women, the queer, and the blacks. They are the ones who tell stories. They are the ones who dig deep into their families’ histories. They are the ones who try to uncover the truth and make amends with the past so they can live a different future.

It’s always people like us—those who stray from the predominant skin color, gender, and sexual orientation—who are intrigued by the injustice around them. They try to make the world a better place because they have not been born within a sheltered confinement. They are empaths because they know what would happen in a similar situation.

“Strong Island” (2017) is a powerful and emotional tale. Director Yance Ford, a transgender, African American man, tries to comprehend the injustice of how authorities handled his brother William Ford Jr.’s murder in 1992. William’s killer was a white truck mechanic who was, unsurprisingly, never charged. 

Ford uses photographs as his tools of communication with the viewer, tracking changes in their appearances as well as their survival. Through Ford’s mother Barbara Dunmore Ford’s testimonials, we are brought into their world and see how William’s murder shaped the way they understood the rules of living under the forces that govern their existence.

Barbara’s pride oozes with every word as she bursts into tears while recalling the terrifying events that lead to her son’s murder. Viewers are left uneasy with every scene in which she appears. Ford keeps the camera rolling in testimonial scenes to involve the viewer in the feeling of helplessness that he and his family went through.

Barbara Dunmore Ford was a pioneer. She was a principal at Thomas Jefferson High School and later opened a school for women and girls on Rikers Island. Her testimonial is deeply moving as is her emotional connection to a past she knew could never be retraced.

In interviews, Ford chose to close up on the hands, showing how a life of struggling to retain black identity amid the ghost of poverty resulted in coarse skin and engraved fingers. Ford used medium shots rather than close-ups on interviewees’ faces, to try to make an emotional story less emotional and more of a reportage. However, when Ford’s mother talks about her son, you can’t help but cry. Ford only allows himself to be filmed close up. 

Ford’s struggle with being a queer, black, transgender American is heavily reflected in the family footage he bravely shares with the viewers. It’s a collection of pre-transition and post-transition footage that is not meant to confuse but to throw us into the mayhem of having to struggle with both sexual and racial identity in a country where your own existence is challenged. 

For non-white artists, understanding that the world does not hand you the right to express, become, and evolve both as a person and an artist, that you have to earn it, is a sharp slap in the face. How Ford discusses coming to terms with his sexual, gender, and racial identity are all testaments to what being a non-white artist truly means.

In the film, Ford evolves as a queer black man while learning that to bring justice to his brother’s name, he has to earn it. Justice was not a basic right for William Ford Jr. but more of a twelve-labors spiral that one had to climb, where each step represented another conquest to retain a basic need. 

Technical wise, Ford kept the film simple, with no excessive camera movement or angles. There are no insertions of newspaper clippings or interviews with bystanders. “Strong Island” reads like a eulogy but with an unresolved ending. 

“Strong Island” is more than a formulaic true-crime drama discussing race and how it’s a block within the social injustice system. It deals with elephants that we pretend we cannot see yet block our way with each step in every room.

Jaylan Salah is an Egyptian poet, translator, two-time national literary award winner, animal lover, feminist, film critic, and philanthropist. Jaylan’s first story collection “Thus Spoke La Loba,” published in 2016, explores sexuality, gender, and issues of identity. Her first poetry book “Workstation Blues” will be published with PoetsIN, a publishing house with the purpose of destigmatizing mental illness and supporting international artists.